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New England Regional | The Tastes of Cambridge

Metamorphoses

In which an old favorite reappears, in the pink

July-August 2003

Long before it became a fraternity of the atrociously behaved and was taken out behind the barn and shot, the Pi Eta Speakers Club occupied a stately brick building on Winthrop Square where brothers gathered in oak-paneled rooms by handsome fireplaces in a thoroughly masculine sanctum. Now the place is a symphony of hot-pink, gold-striped walls with lilac swirls, of gilded chairs and mirrored ceilings, of zebra and leopard stripes and spots, of sconces shaped as undersea life forms, all like something dreamt of by a prepubescent girl, possibly Alice back from Wonderland.

The décor is the design of coproprietor Deborah Hughes and is a jeu d'esprit that lingers in memory. She and Mary-Catherine Deibel ran UpStairs at the Pudding until that jolly Holyoke Street restaurant was booted by landlord Harvard. Miraculously, the women found another prime location—most recently housing the Market Theater, above Grendel's Den—and built a palace of temptations, with two each of dining rooms, kitchens, and chefs.

The Monday Club Bar on the first level, with chef Susan Regis, formerly of Biba, in charge, is the less formal of the two restaurants and more moderately priced. While—with application and a little wine—one can easily spend $50 for lunch, a mere $7 will get you the grilled cheese sandwich of the day, with a cup of soup for another $4. But then you would miss the pea and pea-tendril raviolis, served with "melting aromatic pork" marinated in brown sugar and cumin until it is so tender it offers no resistance to the fork ($14), or perhaps the best piece of fish you've ever had, seared halibut ($16).

Amanda Lydon does the cooking for the elegant, dinner-only, Soirée Room on the second level. The menu is pricey by Cambridge standards, but the imagination and skill of the chef, the quality and freshness of every ingredient, and the care taken with all parts of each meal, will not disappoint you. Most pricey is rack of lamb ($35), but this is Colorado lamb, full flavored and tender, not the nasty New Zealand stuff, and the accompanying potato gratin and creamed spinach are luxuriously good. For a starter, the oyster stew ($13) demonstrates what remarkable strength of flavor can be put into an often bland (and rubbery) proposition—and it comes in a square bowl.

The old UpStairs was this consumer's preferred spot for a festivity requiring cheerful surroundings and exceptional interior rewards. His heart now belongs to the fantastic Soirée Room, where in his experience—regrettably not unlimited—all that chef Lydon serves is wonderful.

~C.R.

UPSTAIRS ON THE SQUARE
91 Winthrop Street,
Cambridge. 617-864-1933
Monday Club Bar: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 to 2:30; Sunday brunch, 11 to 2. Dinner daily, 5 to 11, with late-night menu until 1 on Thursday through Saturday.
Soirée Room: Dinner only, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10, Friday and Saturday to 11.
Reservations accepted.