Harvard Square-area restaurants that offer something special
Though small, the menu at Ten Tables in Cambridge tends toward the exquisite. Take the short list of wine-based cocktails. The Gaston 76 is made with a lesser known French aperitif, Lillet Blanc, somewhat akin to vermouth. Here it is infused with tarragon and served over ice, with three Hollywood-thin cucumber slices idling along the inside of the glass. The slightly anise-like flavor starts out sweet but ends with a hint of the bitter (Lillet contains quinine) and an overall grassiness that opens the palate to the more unearthly delights to follow.
Restaurateur Krista Kranyak and chef/co-owner David Punch seem to have matured from their very early days of more experimental (albeit tremendously good) food at the first Ten Tables, in Jamaica Plain. In Cambridge, the food feels more refined, yet far from fussy. The flavors are richly layered, as in the saffron and tomato broth with garlicky highlights served in a stew of mussels and rock shrimp. Colors and textures, too, are given plenty of room to play.
Our first course was a deep-sea-green garlic and semolina soup with baby spinach and truffle butter ($9). Sounds good enough. But lolling in the center of each bowl was a shelled, five-minute egg so perfectly cooked that we broke them open gently with the sides of our spoons and used the yolks to “fortify the broth,” as our young waiter suggested. The resulting velvety soup hit every nerve of the spine going down, like an assertive massage. The ribboned spinach offered something to chew amid the soft, curving white flesh of the egg. Similarly, the stylishly small, tender shrimp--not the jumbo, Americanized versions--in that Rhode Island-style seafood stew ($25) had a bouncy texture while the mussels were smooth as custard. They came immersed in the spicy tomato-based broth that, even lightened by bits of parsley, kicked a little heat in at the back of the throat.
It’s worth noting the carefully selected wines at Ten Tables. If you order the four-course chef’s tasting menu ($40 per person), the staff pairs wines with each dish for an extra $25. A solid choice are the natural wines produced by Tony Coturri in Sonoma County. The vineyard adds nothing to the grapes; this is clean, un-manipulated winemaking at its best. We had a glass of the Sandocino--a cabernet-merlot-syrah non-vintage blend--with the steak frites ($25). Its deep, mineral essence had just enough fruit to play with the spice-rubbed, Meyer Ranch skirt steak, which was lean and juicy. The hand-cut French fries came with garlic aioli and delectable strips of pickled red onions (more of those next time, please!).
A Coturri vintage also showed up with dessert: the late-harvest, airy Primitivo was a tad sweeter than the chocolate terrine, which came with homemade Thai basil ice cream and sea salt ($8). Frankly, this dish almost induced hallucinosis: a sudden dip into a dark underworld cavern with swirling chocolate rivers, dangling ganache stalactites…and then the ripples of that sweet herbal cream with the salty bits to round out the trip home. The spice pound cake with rhubarb compote and crème fraîche ($8) was a mellower ride, with its slightly crusty texture and hint of burnt sugar.
These journeys through food take place in a pretty, simple setting: the basement of an old brick apartment building. Yet because it’s away from a commercial center and you have to step down to enter, Ten Tables has the romantic 1940s feel of an older establishment--enhanced by its blood-red banquettes along camel-colored walls, the low ceilings, and the nicely dimmed lights. Make your reservations for Commencement Week now. (5 Craigie Circle; 617-576-5444)
For a similarly intimate ambiance, many flock to an older restaurant, Casablanca, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2008. The bar’s larger-than-life Bogart-Bergman mural sets the tone for a bold array of eclectic menu items, from the ricotta dumplings with quince compote ($6) and the simple roasted almonds with sea salt ($6) to the stunning monkfish ossobuco ($29) and the braised lamb shank with pistachio mint basmati rice ($29). After dinner, stroll next door to the historic Brattle Theatre, a renowned art cinema, for some visual treats. (40 Brattle Street; 617-876-0999)
If dimly lit interiors don’t suit your mood, or you want a more straightforwardly French-inspired menu, go to the Harvest for a repast on one of the loveliest patios around. New England seafood lovers should try the classic raw bar ($30/$60), while those in favor of small-farmed food and produce will enjoy most of the rest of the menu. Notable choices include the Painted Hills Farm Striploin with creamed spinach and Swiss chard, foraged mushrooms, Yukon gold potato risotto, and bordelaise ($36), and the roasted chestnut and mascarpone agnolotti with native quince, woodear mushrooms, heirloom cranberries, and amaretto brown butter ($26). The menu-writer deserves a prize for prose! (44 Brattle Street; 617-868-2255)
We also appreciate the airy atmosphere of Sandrine’s, with its big windows and glittering lights. The restaurant’s French fare, with an Alsatian bent, includes the richest delights--escargots, foie gras, and filet mignon--along with the traditional tarte flambée (Flammekueche), a crispy flatbread, topped with nutmeg-scented fromage blanc, which comes with a variety of toppings ($10 to $14). (8 Holyoke Street; 617-497-5300)
At Rialto, in the Charles Hotel, celebrated chef Jody Adams offers whole roasted fish with nettles, green tomatoes, and guanciale (a specialty bacon made from cheeks and jowls) ($34), or veal cheeks and sweetbreads served with buckwheat spaetzle, marrow, and morels ($34). We even love the side dishes, such as orange beets with mint ($7) and wilted greens punched up with garlic and chiles ($7). (1 Bennett Street; 617-661-5050)
Farther afield, and less expensive, is the West Side Lounge, a friendly neighborhood favorite with fresh cocktails and a wide range of food in a comfortable setting. We are partial to the classic spinach salad with blue cheese, roasted walnuts, and Granny Smith apples ($7.95); the “breads and spreads” special for two, featuring cheesy artichoke dip, hummus, and more, ($11.95); and the succulent Prince Edward Island mussels served in a white wine and garlic broth that is soaked up by buttery toasted crostini ($8.95). (1680 Mass. Ave.; 617-441-5566)
For a more atypical experience, go several blocks north to Addis Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant. Traditional dishes--like ZilZil-Tibs, strips of tender beef sautéed in oil with onions, herbs, berbere, and vinegar ($10.95)--are eaten with your hands, using a spongy bread called injera. The meat dishes are balanced by vegetarian choices featuring lentils, cracked wheat, and spicy cabbage. It’s a colorful, cozy atmosphere smelling of hot spices and warm bread. (1755 Mass. Ave.; 617-441-8727)
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