A journey through the wine-dark sea at Muse

Entrees: $20 and up
82 Society St.
Dinner (closed Sun.)

The hand-crafted majolica plates and dishes at Muse speak to an ancient aesthetic. Colorful lines warble across the plates and are reflected in the fabrics of the rooms and even the paint that flows along the walls -- and it feels good, comfortably familiar and slightly exotic, sultry and alluring, like the first time you heard Billie Holiday crooning smokily across a hip bar. Soulful spaces such as these, like smoke-filled bars, are increasingly rare these days, but the quirky little house at 82 Society St. has always had good bones, and owner Beth Anne Crane has fleshed it out nicely over the last few months.

Majolica pottery originated in the ancient Persian arts of Baghdad, traveling among the diaspora of Arab conquest, its historical path as sinuous and colorful as the glazes themselves, across the North African Maghreb, into Moorish Spain and the South of Italy. It represents the Islamic influences that heavily shaped the entire Mediterranean basin, and by extension, our understanding of its food. It is this flavor, this influence of long-forgotten forbearers, which seems to have resurfaced at Muse. I'm not sure if Beth Anne intended it, or if her collaboration with chef Jason Houser merely produced an intuitive result, but the aesthetic values presented within the space somehow translate extraordinarily onto the plate.

To dine at Muse means following that meandering strand of pasta back down into a beautiful bowl, among a filigree of candlelit shadows dancing across the table and the pillow-lined plaster against which you sit, into the beautiful geometrics of frescos splayed along the walls and crawling onto the ceilings among the tendrils of aroma drifting from the kitchen. They pray to the East. Like a lost Saracen perched on the edge of the Sicilian boot, Muse looks down into the morass of Mediterranean history and delivers a sublime modern interpretation, carrying the diner into the interpretive melting pot that is authentic Mediterranean food.

Sweet bits infiltrate a cuisine that, in its generic Americanized form, traditionally spends much of its time pondering the tomato, pasta, and the salty hit of anchovy and olive. Lemony notes pop up, formed from older and more exotic solutions. The sumac-rubbed duck breast ($9) comes coated in that sumac twang, disturbing at first, overly acidic with a puckering bite, until your fork picks up the sweet richness of deeply caramelized onions dripping with flamed Madeira and the sugary chew of Medjool dates -- a perfect reflection, juxtaposing sweet and sour, of the whole pomegranate seeds and pomegranate reduction that ring the whole. It is at once a dish about both the modern American palate and a nod to those spice caravans of old.

Manchego cheese from Spain forms a long, thin crisp at the bottom of an elongated plate ($10). Tiny leaves of arugula, perhaps a bit mild in the dead of winter, but sprightly and light as feathers, twine above, cutting through the fat richness of the cheese with their coating of blood orange juice and vinaigrette. Pistachios lay among them, crunchy and good, splattered with the residual grease oozing from hot cheese. A mushroom tortelloni ($16) follows, puffed and bloated with a substantial, yet lightly-treading duxelle. The stunner is the broth, a rich, sexy concoction of truffles and bitter winter greens, perfectly pungent, briny, and redolent -- a forest floor from which the mushroom-filled pastas seem to grow.

These dishes weave a rich tapestry of flavors with a true sense of the Mediterranean, not the Disneyfied experience of all-you-can-eat pasta and tiramisu. Main offerings continue such themes. The bones that nestled the braised lamb ($25) during its long journey though the slow heat have gone missing. Not your typical lamb shank bolstered with a thick tomato sauce and olives, the morsels charade as a modern stack, one delicious layer on another, a court dish, deconstructed, lifted from its skeletal remains, tossed with the pan gravy and some slivers of olive, and carefully molded atop a rich feta polenta. The crowning jewel is a bird's nest of feta cheese, carefully grated, dried, and baked until it forms thin, crisp tendrils that poke and pop in the mouth, an edible crusty cap among velvety meats.

No less spectacular is the crispy whole loup de mer ($26). It revels in a bright green froth, a light and whimsical sea of artichoke bisque, the fish held just above the thickened waves by a bed of leeks that have been melted oh-so-slowly until they resemble a sweet, creamy, striated pudding. The fish swims without bones, crispy tail and back joined now by only the muscular flesh that pushes it along toward your mouth. Its haunch resembles an early Jackson Five hairdo, sharp wisps of crackling batter that seem to explode from the fish, they rise as a cascading pile of crunch, one bite revealing their true nature -- baby artichoke leaves, carefully snipped and crisped like popcorn. It is a genius move (even if the fish was ever so slightly overcooked), indicative of a chef who intends to innovate rather than rest on the laurels of tradition.

Muse inspires. It is a splendid space, intimate and inviting, with 100 wines by the glass that can be paired to almost any mood or fancy. The spirit of the Alhambra, the Bedouin, and the bazaars of the ancient spice road glow in the dim candlelight as they wash upon the shores of Greek, Italian, and Iberian heritage. They are true flavors; captured and framed by the space they inhabit. They will make you want to lick the bowl. And at the bottom will appear those colorful strands of the majolica.



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