Creative Kitchens

Cambridge chefs delight in novelty.

Alden & Harlow offers creative “American-style tapas.”
Modern Chinese food at East by Northeast includes pork buns, lamb meatballs, and egg noodles with spicy calamari and watermelon slaw.
Italian fare is slow-cooked with love at the neighborhood bistro Giulia.
West Bridge’s spacious, clean, modernist look reflects its French-cooked, regionally sourced food.
An intimate space, Bondir offers food lovers and their closest friends small plates of savory perfection.
At The Beat Hotel’s shimmering cavern in the Square, live jazz and world music feed the soul, nightly.
An interior at The Beat Hotel
A Square veteran, Rialto continually renews itself by plumbing the (seemingly endless) depths of Italian cuisine.

Alden & Harlow (40 Brattle St., 617-864-2100; aldenharlow.com), which replaced the local landmark Casablanca earlier this year, is well on its way to building its own loyal fan base. Its lively atmosphere has various spots to eat and drink, depending on one’s mood, and a menu of inventive, even brash, combinations of tastes and textures, all in the form of “American-style tapas.”

In his first solo venture, chef and owner Michael Scelfo (formerly of Russell House Tavern) kept the restaurant’s series of loosely connected rooms (the space still feels like a fun hideaway), but gutted and transformed the interior to create a main dining room that is lighter and airier than it was when home to Bogart and Bacall. That room also features a new, gleaming, open kitchen framed by utilitarian white subway tiles, part of a retro-industrial and modern farmhouse motif that is echoed in exposed ducts, wooden beams, and, here and there, frosted glass partitions embedded with chicken wire. (Other newish Cambridge restaurants such as Puritan & Company, The Sinclair, and West Bridge share some of the same raw look and feel.) A second, quieter dining room, sans kitchen view, fronts Brattle Street.

The bar, lit with low lights, now sits in the slimmest section, linking the other rooms. But its wraparound nature widely embraces everyone, from a group letting loose after work, to regulars looking to chat, to a couple in the corner clearly enjoying an intimate date.

The restaurant is named for the building’s original architects (a firm that succeeded H.H. Richardson), perhaps because Scelfo himself offers similarly innovative structures throughout the oft-changing menu. Read it from left to right for lighter to heavier dishes: “ubiquitous kale salad” with fennel and a creamy pistachio dressing ($8), to hickory-smoked blood pudding with plush figs and walnut romesco ($12). And watch for mischievous mergings, quirky textures, and smoke.

Charred broccoli (better than it sounds) came with a squash-and-cashew-nut hummus and crumbled montasio, an Italian cheese that here was dried out and salted and tasted like very good bacon ($8). The salt cod and turnip brandade ($13) can be spread on delicate shards of house-made crackers and topped with a prickly Asian-style slaw of fennel, arugula, and cubes of blood orange. Far richer was the hand-cut rye pasta (itself maybe too bland) and a superb confit chicken thigh lolling in a warm fig-and-chicken-liver “butter,” topped with crisped skin ($15).

Desserts? The smoked chocolate bread pudding (yes, slowly “baked” in a cold smoker) was stunning: drier, thinner, and less sweet than expected, it was topped by ice cream flavored with Jacobsen’s artisanal salt ($9). “Like eating a cigar—in a good way,” noted one diner. Another must-try is the roasted parsnip cobbler ($9). Strips of carmelized earthy vegetable spiced right with cinnamon and nutmeg lay under a crunchy, paper-thin crust; all was punctuated by a sharp ginger ice cream.

Also new in the Square is The Beat Hotel (13 Brattle St., 617-499-0001; beathotel.com), an alluring, glittering cavern with a warm vibe. Excellent nightly live jazz and world music loosens the mood, as do the marvelous murals by local artist Jordan Piantedosi, which blend psychedelic, punk styles and William Morris patterning with figures akin to those in Art Nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha.

The menu is almost as eclectic. Surely, there’s something here for everyone, from oysters du jour ($3 each) and lamb nachos ($12) to short-rib lasagna ($23) and Brazilian seafood stew ($24)—not to mention the bohemianesque “earth bowl” of grains, lean proteins, and assorted veggies ($26).

For a more refined meal reflecting instead the diverse cuisine of one country, Italy, go to Rialto at the Charles Hotel (1 Bennett St., 617-661-5050; rialto-restaurant.com). Sit inside on soft banquettes amid a soothing décor in tones of sage and cream; or eat al fresco on the more rustic patio, with its starry overhead lights. Try the lighter braised artichoke and fava bean salad with fresh mint and coriander ($13), or the rich, butter-poached lobster with house-cured bacon, sunchokes, and leeks ($42). The elegant bar is a great place to stop with friends, and everyone can sample treats from small plates. Of note are the meatballs with green olives and capers ($7), the roasted duck sandwich with gingered figs ($14), and the traditional arancini touched by saffron ($5).

Italian fare, conjured with great care, also stars at Giulia (1682 Massachusetts Ave., 617-441-2800; giuliarestaurant.com), a homey bistro within walking distance of the Square. Chef E. Michael Pagliarini spikes a dish of wild boar and pappardelle with juniper ($21), softens the bitter edge of a fennel and watercress salad with chunks of blood orange ($10), and pairs a simple tuna steak with pickled ginger and grilled celery ($18).

Just as unique are Giulia’s desserts. Order the hazelnut gelato with chocolate shortbread splashed with espresso ($6)—and opt for the extra $3 glass of amaro Montenegro, for its herbal and citrus notes.

The cottage-like feel of Bondir (279A Broadway, 617-661-0009; bondircambridge.com) celebrates the slow art of eating, and emphasizes “sustainable modern American cuisine” in a menu that changes daily.

Vintage china, abundant floral displays, and sculptural wooden chairs project a funky chic that seems casual, but is more likely arranged as preciously as the food is prepared.

A cheese custard tartine ($18) appetizer with fall-apart buttery crust was nice and stinky—and came with large spoonfuls of crispy red quinoa, carrot relish, and shallot confit. Seared Maine-raised mutton was extra gamy and coupled with barley-flour rigatoni, charred romanesco, and fresh pea greens ($18). Note, too, the outstanding service: “present and knowledgeable,” a diner reports, “but not obsequious.”

The same can be said of the more casual, enthusiastic staff at East By Northeast (1128 Cambridge St., 617-876-0286; exnecambridge.com). The atypical Chinese tapas restaurant near Inman Square serves home-style Asian comfort food, such as the hand-rolled noodles, buns, and dumplings, with more than a couple of twists. A soft Southern-style squishy biscuit is stuffed with smoked pork confit dribbled with a honey chili sauce—all offset by a side of sharp-tasting carrot and daikon slaw. The fried-rice-stuffed crêpe ($9) holds smoked tofu, sunchokes, and a silky beet ketchup.

Chef and owner Phillip Tang is thoughtful and unafraid to experiment—he controls his establishment’s high-quality output by taking his time and offering small plates in a small space, so that 24 diners can all be kept happy at once.

Much larger in scope and scale, West Bridge (1 Kendall Square, 617-945-0221; westbridgerestaurant.com) serves fresh New England fare with a French flair. To wit: starters such as seafood potage served with grilled toast ($14) and black Tuscan kale enriched with duck confit and gooseberry sauce ($12). Entrées are richly flavored, but light on the stomach. A braised lamb neck comes dotted with oysters, sautéed escarole, and butter beans ($44), while the bass with whelks is bathed in a Japanese dashi broth and paired with old-fashioned grits ($27).

The interior is modern and earthy, a lofty space grounded by polished wooden tables and rough-hewn floors. A bar, whose tenders are admirably obliging, dominates the center but is not overly noisy.

This spring and summer, choose to sit out on the equally expansive deck overlooking a brick courtyard (sometimes it features musicians) before or after taking in a film at the nearby Kendall Square Cinema. As of late May, the sun sets after 8 p.m.—and the kitchen stays open ’til midnight.

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Kindergarten Matters

An economist finds that good kindergarten teachers boost pupils' earnings later in life.

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

From the Archives: The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead

 A Harvard botanist investigates mystic potions, voodoo rites, and the making of zombies.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets