photo credit: Brian Samuels
Fox & The Knife
Does anyone know what the machine that churns out generically trendy but competent Italian restaurants runs on? Crude oil? Extra-virgin olive oil? A refined and processed blend of burrata and draft negronis?
Whatever it is, the machine ran out just as it was about to finish Fox & The Knife in Southie. For a while there it was humming along nicely, manufacturing and assembling one generic component part after another. There’s the compound name made up of two disparate and seemingly random nouns. There’s the menu that plays with tradition just enough to make people think something interesting is going here (harissa lamb at an Italian place?!? OMG WHAT?!!) And, of course, there’s the sassy neon sign, because above all else, you can’t be a generically trendy restaurant these days if you don’t have a sassy neon sign.
These restaurants do have value for when you’re with people who ultimately just want something attractive and predictable. But Fox & The Knife doesn’t even succeed as one of these kind of boring but useful places. The machine died just after assembling a selection of fairly standard but well-made small plates, leaving a menu that gets worse and worse as you move down it. Ultimately, this place is defined by bland and overpriced pastas and entrees that make you go, “Wait, why the hell does everyone love this place so much?”
You won’t ask that question right away. First, you’ll sit at a table you booked a week in advance and enjoy some promising appetizers. There’s a great panzanella salad (which is even better with pickled nectarines in the summer), some deliciously simple focaccia stuffed with cheese, and a small bowl of fried chickpeas that you’ll wish you could buy bags of at the cash register at Cumberland Farms. But as you move to the big stuff, the questions will come. Is this the driest bolognese you’ve ever had? Why does their chalky twist on cacio e pepe make you so sad? And, while fishermen obviously need to feed their families, gas their boats, and polish their wooden legs, how in God’s name could a plate of just three scallops cost $28?
Of course, it’ll be hard to even hear yourself ask these questions over the sounds of a completely packed dining room and the staff hammering yet another best new restaurant of the year award onto the wall. The hype that surrounds this place is relentless, which is a product of a lot of things: it has a well-pedigreed chef, it’s in Southie (where everything’s a bigger deal than it would be elsewhere in the city), and it just looks and feels like the type of restaurant that’s supposed to be good in 2020 (the machine exists for a reason). But the hype isn’t loud enough to distract you from the fact that the harissa lamb tastes more blanched than braised, with all the flavor of tennis ball rubber.
What’s such a shame is that this place isn’t a completely lost cause. The vermouth-focused cocktail menu is interesting. Almost every small plate is either very good or great. And there are a few larger dishes we like, like a mafaldine that works well with mushrooms and truffle butter. But these few high points are surrounded by inexplicable blandness and prices that would even make Adam Smith wonder if someone slept on the invisible hand the night before. It’s enough to make you want to grab a wrench and a quart of oil and head to the plant to fix the machine yourself. If the invisible hand tells us anything (once it stops tingling and regains its range of motion), it’s that there’s always a market demand for generically trendy but competent Italian restaurants. We need that machine back up and running.
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Is it essentially the same concept as a stuffed-crust pizza? Yes, but don’t try to pretend you don’t like stuffed-crust pizza.
Fried Chili Chickpeas
If you come here only for drinks and bowl after bowl of this great little bar snack, you’ll have a good time.
The bread salad changes seasonally, coming with things like pickled stone fruits in the summer and pomegranate and fennel in the winter. But it’s always good.
The wild boar and thyme combine for some decent flavor, but it’s so dry that it doesn’t really seem like a bolognese at all.
Pepe e Cacio
Yes, it’s on the menu as “pepe e cacio.” We suspect that’s because it’s so chalky and bland that real cacio e pepe refuses to be associated with it.
Zafferano Spaghetti Con Vongole
Overcooked clams and a boring tomato-butter sauce team up to make you want your $20 back.
Mafaldini Alla Funghi
Truffle butter never steers us wrong, and here it makes for our favorite pasta dish along with toasted farro and mushrooms.
Harissa Braised Agnello
We like the carrot polenta the lamb is served on, but we have no idea what they did to the lamb to make it so flavorless.
Pollo Al Mattone
The good news is the chicken is seriously moist. The bad news is it doesn’t taste any different than 90% of the chicken dishes you’ve had throughout your life.
It’s the best entree on the menu. The scallops are buttery tender and the pine nuts perfectly complement them. Unfortunately, it’s also the most inexplicably expensive thing on the menu.