Some favorite local restaurants
Chez Henri, a Cambridge mainstay since 1994, might be overlooked in the constant rush toward the newly bold and beautiful. Don't make that mistake this Commencement season. With his French-Cuban menu, chef Paul O'Connell dishes out some of the tastiest fare around. The cassoulet à la Toulouse is an array of slow-cooked white beans, lamb, and garlic sausage; the steak frites pays homage to the flash frier; and the fennel pollen-scented flounder is a delicate alternative to both. The bar is a relaxed local hangout offering terrific wines and superbly mixed drinks with a Latin flair--the rhum cocktail Marilène, the citrusy periodista, and, of course, fresh mojitos. The pressed Cuban sandwich is a delight on the barfood menu; just get friends to order the homemade chorizo, or fritters with guava barbecue sauce, so you can "have it all."
Rendezvous, in Central Square, was once a Burger King. Now this stylish spot offers "western Mediterranean-inspired food" created largely from locally grown or raised ingredients. The menu favors seafood--the Maine lobster and shrimp salad with blood orange, mint, and pomegranate is a must--and look for dishes featuring traditional North African flavors (preserved lemons, rose petals, dried fruits, and salty-sweet combinations). Rendezvous caters to grown-ups, but is near some cool music clubs; we recommend a postprandial visit to the Cantab Lounge, where people of all ages, colors, and creeds dance to a funky house band.
Garden at the Cellar, en route to Central Square, is run by an up-and-coming young chef, Will Gilson; it also emphasizes local food and herbs. The décor is a bit unprepossessing, but that doesn't matter once you've tucked into a small plate of rosemary polenta fries, a side dish of golden beets, or the homemade ricotta gnocchi (with or without braised rabbit).
The innovative owner of Ten Tables in Boston has opened a new Cambridge location where Craigie Street Bistrot (now Craigie on Main) used to be. (The latter, also an excellent choice for a celebratory meal, has relocated to larger digs in Central Square.) Ten Tables offers young, friendly service and food that's a little more on the experimental end--albeit all delicious. Try the handmade merguez (a spicy Tunisian sausage), the Portuguese monkfish stew, and--for a unique dessert--the chocolate terrine with sea salt and Thai basil ice cream.
Sandrine's, in the heart of Harvard Square, offers a warm, European atmosphere and Alsatian food, some of it downright luxurious. There's foie gras, filet mignon, and chocolate kougelhopf for dessert. Also tantalizing are traditional specialties like flatbread with nutmeg-scented fromage blanc, the moule frites (steamed mussels, with fries), or the choucroute garnie au Riesling (sauerkraut simmered in wine and juniper berries, along with an array of meats and a bacon-wrapped potato).
For an elegant Italian meal in chic surroundings, head for Rialto. The lobster bucatini (thicker, hollow spaghetti) with green and red tomatoes, chilis, and saffron, and the novel lasagna with game ragú, black trumpet mushrooms, and sweetbreads reflect the refocused menu that celebrity chef Jody Adams devised a few years ago when she also lightened the décor for a more contemporary feel. Also nice are big windows with a sweet view of the Charles Hotel's tree-lined courtyard.
The piazza-like courtyard is also a great place to meet for drinks and appetizers before heading into Rialto, or you can choose to stay put and dine fully al fresco at the adjacent Henrietta's Table. The emphasis here is on fresh, beautifully prepared New England fare-much of which might qualify as "comfort food." Crab and corn chowder, Yankee pot roast, Gloucester scrod, and lamb shanks top the menu, while the desserts run from coconut cream cake to apple cobbler.
Not far away, a festive favorite, Upstairs on the Square, provides royal service and rich treats (including superior short ribs, veal, and schnitzel) along with a splendid vegetarian tasting menu in a glittering, pink jewel-box of a room. Brunch and afternoon tea are also served.
For less expensive, low-key alternatives offering thoughtful menus and convivial milieus try: Daedalus (we love the roof-top dining room); West Side Lounge, where the Prince Edward Island mussels shine; the Asian fusion Shabu Square for fresh meat, fish, and vegetables cooked at your table; or Café of India, where diners can enjoy the popular buffet lunch while sitting by windows wide open to the bustling street life of Harvard Square.