Fare Thee Well

Some notable restaurants near Harvard Square

Ever wonder why there are so few superlative Chinese restaurants in this country? Why all we expect is dependable, cheap food in nondescript surroundings? Why no one in the kitchen wants to prove that Chinese cuisine can be haute? It’s the same story with many Indian restaurants, where much tends to taste the same. (Allegedly, that’s because the drill in Indian restaurants is to make big batches of multi-purpose bases and throw specialized seasoning at them as different dishes require.) In London, by contrast, there are chefs in Indian restaurants who aspire to a Michelin star. Why not here?

Tamarind Bay (75 Winthrop Street, 617-491-4525) will open your mouth to new pleasures. Here, the ubiquitous tandoori chicken ($15) is not encrusted with artificial-looking bright orange stuff; it is marinated in yogurt and seasoned with consideration with paprika and nutmeg, and it is delicious.

Sorting out the spices at play is a challenge with Indian food. One is told that the yellow sauce with the grilled scallops ($16.50) is made of cashews and lovage seeds. The seasonings in the squid sautéed with onions and tomatoes ($14.50) are chili, coriander, and turmeric. The minty taste in the saag gosht ($14.50)—lamb that is stewed in spinach—comes from ground fenugreek leaves.

Fresh is a keyword at Tamarind Bay under executive chef Wali Ahmad (who used to cook on India’s most popular TV cookery show), as the many vegetarian dishes will attest. Try the dhingri muttar-pyaz ($14), mushrooms, green peas, and spring onions in an onion-tomato gravy. The restaurant is small and in a basement, but the owners have done the best they can with décor. They offer a buffet ($8.95) at lunch and a large choice for dinner.

•The diner-correspondents who, in effect, write the Zagat Survey of restaurants say the best food in Greater Boston this year is at Oishii, a sushi place in Chestnut Hill; three cheers for the upwardly mobile California roll. But fear not, you traditionalists in search of top-notch cholesterol: Harvard Square can satisfy you. Chef Jody Adams continues to prepare scrumptious Mediterranean food at Rialto in the Charles Hotel (1 Bennett Street, 617-661-5050). Choose, perhaps, a “charcuterie plate: duck liver paté, game terrine, and pork rillettes with champagne grapes and cornichons” ($18), followed by “veal ossobucco with semolina fritters, oyster mushrooms, and salsa verde” ($36), then on to “mascarpone and pine-nut cheesecake with dried fruit compote and rosemary cookie” ($9).

•Born in Alsace, Raymond Ost has been a journeyman cook in Germany, Martinique, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, San Francisco, and Boston. At last, in 1996, he opened his own place, Sandrine’s Bistro (8 Holyoke Street, 617-497-5300), a French restaurant. You can have his “untraditional Alsatian tartelette,” of leeks, sweet onion, and smoked bacon ($9) to start, or stay closer to home with Maine lobster, avocado, caper-and-tomato compote, crème fraîche, and a citrus vinaigrette ($18), presented in a jumbo martini glass.

•Gaiety is on the menu at Upstairs on the Square (91 Winthrop Street, 617-864-1933), a two-part reincarnation of Upstairs at the Pudding. The place wins any contest for over-the-top décor, and the jollity of it all seems to flavor the food. Chef Susan Regis presides over the more informal Monday Club Bar (try the grilled cheese of the day at lunch, $7, recently a melding of fresh figs and gorgonzola dulce). Amanda Lydon is in charge for dinner at the splendid Soiree Room upstairs. Everything she cooks is wonderful.

•Old-timer Harvest (44 Brattle Street, 617-868-2255) is now under the care of executive chef Keith Pooler, who aims to present “contemporary cuisine inspired by American classics.” Thus, one might start with seared chicken livers served with spinach, roast peppers, goat cheese, and a warm bacon vinaigrette ($9) and move on to pan-seared striped bass with fregola, guanciale, confit tomatoes, arugula, and ricotta salata ($30). Don’t worry if you can’t find many of these ingredients in your pocket dictionary. One may dine outdoors here if the weather smiles.

•Chef Tony Maws of the Craigie Street Bistrot (5 Craigie Circle, 617-497-5511) makes a fine citrus vinaigrette, and he gives you the recipe for it and other good things at his website, www.craigiestreetbistrot.com. Take a 10-minute stroll from the Square into a leafy residential precinct a block from the Commander Hotel, where you will find and delight in this small establishment. Maws cooks modern French food, five each of appetizers, entrées, and desserts each day, depending on what looks good to him at the market. How about poached cod with razor clams and a chorizo sausage sauce ($30)? Maws was named one of the best new chefs of 2005 by Food & Wine magazine.

The Red House (96 Winthrop Street, 617-576-0605) has many things to recommend it. It’s in a charming space—a small, clapboard house of 1810 vintage transformed into a homey restaurant on two floors, with three small private dining rooms and an agreeable outdoor terrace. Most menu items may be had in full or half portions, a boon to the budget-conscious and those not wishing to be overwhelmed by excess. The food is the only caveat; sometimes it’s quite good, sometimes it’s mediocre.

•All you want is pizza and a beer? All they do at Cambridge 1 (27 Church Street, 617-576-1111), once a firehouse, is pizzas and salads—both exceedingly well. Plus beer, wine, and a great view of the Old Burying Ground.

•The best food in Boston may be sushi at Oishii, but the most popular restaurant among Zagat arbiters is Legal Seafood, a chain. There’s one at 20 University Road, (617-491-9400), across a courtyard from the Charles Hotel. You can depend on the seafood being fresh. Apart from the odd oyster or clam, it is cooked.     

   ~C.R.

   

Read more articles by: Christopher Reed

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