All restaurants have ups and downs, but my two trips to Donna's in the Can Company were like night and day.
I was surprised by how much went wrong during our meal on a recent evening at the restaurant, which opened in November. Dishes didn't work or didn't taste like what the menu had described. The decor, always a strong suit at Donna Crivello and Alan Hirsch's coffee bars, felt cold and uninviting inside the rehabbed warehouse that also houses a Bibelot bookstore.
But when I returned a few days later for lunch, I had a completely different impression. With light streaming through a double-high expanse of windowpanes, the space seemed much warmer, colors brighter. I could not believe that the trim, modern chairs were deep purple, not charcoal gray, and the bar stools weren't brown, but burnt pumpkin.
The food was better, too, although the menu was much less ambitious. Lunch is limited to salads, soups, sandwiches and pizza.
Entrees were a problem at dinner, especially the penne with Sicilian tomato sauce, which was missing capers, artichoke hearts and spicy peppers, along with the Italian sausage we requested. All we could taste were tangy olives.
Roasted vegetables are one of Donna's trademarks, and we tried them here in all their caramelized goodness with grilled, marinated chicken breasts that tasted unmarinated and dry. We liked that the roasted veggie burger was served on a focaccia roll with sun-dried tomato mayo, but its mushy texture was unappealing. A good vegetarian alternative is the portobello mushroom and herbed goat cheese focaccia sandwich we tried at lunch.
Our waiter at dinner made a point of telling us that there was a new cook in the kitchen, and that orders were taking a lot of time. We might want to choose something uncomplicated, he suggested. Not everything went wrong at dinner. Our meal started off fine, with soft breads and olive oil for dipping, and a fabulous winter salad topped with roasted pears. The pears were less sweet than you might imagine, and made even more sophisticated with a cloak of melted Gorgonzola.
We also liked the homemade flavor of the tomato, white bean and kale soup, garnished with Parmesan cheese and chunky croutons, and the way that smoked mozzarella and hot Italian peppers gave a fat chicken quesadilla added depth.
The Mediterranean platter, though, was a bomb. The hummus was pasty and unbearably over-seasoned with cumin; the tapenade was just chopped olives and nothing more. We didn't mind the substitution of crisped tortilla wedges for pita, but where were the olives and pepperoncini?
At lunch, everything was back to Donna's usual standards. The hummus was delicious, creamy smooth and well seasoned, as the centerpiece of a Mediterranean salad on baby greens with fontinella cheese.
Also up to par were Donna's oversized lattes, served in French-style bowls, and the warmed cranberry apple tart, a perennial favorite in the dessert case.
Pizza is available both at lunch and dinner. It has a wonderful deflated balloon of a crust that's all soft and puffy. We tried it topped with creamy globs of goat cheese, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes that the kitchen substituted for roasted red peppers.
Not every Donna's has a pizza oven or a full bar, as this one does, nor is there as large a selection of dinner entrees at some of the other locations. But despite the dinner-time variety, lunch may be the best time to visit the Donna's in the Can Company, especially if you happen to be shopping in the afternoon for books at Bibelot. Certainly the cafe will feel a lot more inviting then.
Donna's Coffee Bar
The Can Company, 2400 Boston St.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$8.95; entrees, $5.50-$11.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *