Truc, a small but hugely satisfying South End bistro. The chef is an Andover alumna, but she didn't learn to cook like this there. Stu Rosner
One can readily find Afghan, Caribbean, Vietnamese, Alsatian, Spanish, Korean, Lebanese, Portuguese, Moroccan, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Irish, Thai, Indian, or Cambodian food in Cambridge. But just try to find a corned beef on rye in a Harvard Square restaurant. Ostrich? Of course. Curried goat? It's close to hand. Pizza of brandade, chanterelles, and greens, drizzled with truffle oil containing flecks of gold? Step this way. But hot pastrami? Until the Square gets a decent, eat-in, New York deli, one has to make do. Consider the following Cambridge and Boston establishments, all of which have been reviewed at length in this magazine.
UP STAIRS AT THE PUDDING
The pretty rooftop terrace presents the most agreeable setting in town for an alfresco lunch or dinner. The interior dining room is high-ceilinged, is decorated with elderly Hasty Pudding Theatricals posters, and manages a slightly seedy elegance that may make you feel you are indeed in Cambridge instead of Indianapolis or Des Moines or any other of the nation's interchangeable parts. One has seen a man dining there in a baby blue jumpsuit; this must be Cambridge. The food is excellent. How about a pomegranate-glazed grilled quail with parmesan polenta and sautéed arugula to start ($12), followed by roasted halibut with sautéed Swiss chard, pan-roasted fennel, and gingered carrot sauce ($26)? Lunch and dinner daily. Sunday brunch. 10 Holyoke Street, Cambridge. (617) 864-1933.
The original Harvest opened in 1975 amid cheering from the locals, who hadn't been able theretofore to get a really good meal out near Harvard Square. But the pioneering restaurant fell into a swoon and expired in 1997. It's born again, under new management, with pleasing décor, waiters and waitresses who operate to a high standard and are knowledgeable about the long wine list, and very good food. For some time after the place reopened, the chef had too heavy a hand with salt, an odd shortcoming. But he's gotten a grip. About $60 per person for dinner-- wine and tip included. One may eat alfresco in clement weather. Lunch, tea, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Valet parking at dinner. 44 Brattle Street, Cambridge. (617) 868-2255.
This busy establishment in the Charles Hotel always places in the top 10 on lists of the best restaurants in the Boston area. The food, which has a Mediterranean accent, is usually outstanding--and not as unfathomable as its description on the menu might suggest. (Here's where you get your codfish pizza with the golden truffle oil.) One spots an occasional academic in the audience, but most of the patrons are better dressed and probably on expense accounts. Dinner for two who go light on wine runs about $130. Dinner nightly. One Bennett Street, Cambridge. (617) 661-5050.
A Boston classic--not far from Paul Revere's grave and the birthplace of the Parker House roll--offers formality in the main dining room on the first floor of the renovated Old City Hall building, a lively and inviting café below, and a terrace for lunch or dinner outdoors. The establishment was opened in 1972 by Lucien Robert and his wife, Ann, A.M. '56. Lucien's nephew Jacky is now principal chef for the main dining room. Moving beyond French traditions, he has imported some of his former California cooking experience. One may encounter mussel and coconut soup, for example. Dinner for two with wine and tip, in the elegance upstairs, totals about $150. Lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday; dinner Saturday. 45 School Street, Boston. (617) 227-3370.
The ambience of Sandrine's is warm, the food delicious and interesting, the menu offers more choice than heretofore, and the prices will bruise but not kill you. The cuisine of Alsace reflects the region's history of German invasions: viz., coq à la bière ($18). The sautéed duck foie gras with caramelized apples in a port sauce ($16) is an obscenely grand way to start a meal, or try the Alsatian bacon and onion tartelette ($7). The artichoke ravioli ($18) is delightful. For the carnivore, what better than roasted venison loin with grand veneur sauce, served with a spicy poached pear and Alsatian mehlknepfle, a pasta ($27)? Lunch, Monday-Saturday; dinner nightly. 8 Holyoke Street, Cambridge. (617) 497-5300.
Not far from Harvard Square but cloistered from its hurlyburly, this dependable Northern Italian restaurant faces the bricked courtyard of the Charles Hotel, although it has nothing to do corporately with the hotel. In warm weather one may sit under a gay umbrella outdoors. Most entrées may be obtained in either full or half portions-- for which, huzzah. Thus you may have $8.50- or $13.95-worth of pansotti Genovese con carciofi. Too many restaurants shovel on the grub as though you hadn't eaten in a month. Lunch and dinner daily. 20 University Road, Cambridge. (617) 576-0605.
Patrick Noé, chef-owner of this establishment, prepares notable French fare (with Italian and Spanish influences) in a cozy bistro setting. The cellar door is in an apartment house off Craigie Street, which runs between Brattle and Concord. Finding a parking space is awkward--impossible legally for those without resident stickers. The easy walk from Harvard Square will be good for the digestion. How about mussels and mahogany clams in a roast garlic, tomato, and saffron fish broth ($7.50) for starters, followed by a thick pork chop au poivre with morel cream sauce over egg noodles ($19.50)? Dinner nightly except Sunday and Monday. 5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge. (617) 661-4073.
As one enters the door of this restaurant on the mezzanine of the Charles Hotel, one is confronted by broccoli, onions, turnips, and the like--staged as a farmers' market. One may indeed buy and take home a nice carrot, but the produce is mostly meant to be emblematic of the fresh, unpretentious New England fare of the restaurant itself: chicken potpie, fruit cobbler, that sort of thing. True, one can get an ostrichburger ($10.50), but the ostrich was raised in Massachusetts. The food is good, the setting is bright, and the prices are moderate. When weather permits, one may be served outside in the brick courtyard (Henrietta's Porch) under a multicolored umbrella and gaze at the people across the way at Giannino. Sunday brunch is bountiful and popular. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. One Bennett Street. (617) 661-5005.
A short walk up Massachusetts Avenue from the Law School, this French-Cuban bar and restaurant is jolly, hip, and apt to be crowded and noisy. The food is very good. The menu, with its Cuban spin on classic French bistro fare, can range from bone marrow on toast to paella. Dinner runs about $35 per. One may get tapas in the bar until midnight, sometimes an attractive option. Dinner nightly. Sunday brunch. One Shepard Street, Cambridge. (617) 354-8980.
THE BLUE ROOM
One may find noise, long waits, and Julia Child at the Blue Room, which proves that it's popular and unusually good. The cuisine is eclectic. The tables are topped with sheets of zinc, the décor Jazz Era. Two self-disciplined individuals can dine well for $100, staying away from the pricier grapes. Dinner nightly. Sunday brunch. One Kendall Square, Cambridge. (617) 494-9034.
Chef Stan Frankenthaler's place always is named among the better restaurants in Greater Boston for its food. He calls his innovative dishes "assertively flavored," often with Southeast Asian herbs. Thus, a lightly fried lobster comes with chilies, lemongrass, and Thai basil. Cashew-crusted salmon fillet is a signature creation. One can see some of the cooking being done on wood-burning grills. From Harvard Square, take a cab or drive to this East Cambridge establishment; parking is available. Dinner for two with wine and tip hovers around $140. Dinner nightly except Sunday. A cafeteria-style lunch, a proposition very different from dinner, is available weekdays. One Athenaeum Place, Cambridge. (617) 225-2121.
This East Cambridge Afghan restaurant has 18 main dishes of beef, lamb, and chicken at the meaty core of its menu, but eight vegetarian entrées and four appetizers deliver fresh flavors and textures that might bliss out even the most confirmed flesh eater. Afghan food mingles elements of Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, synthesizing them into a tasty repertoire. Entrées run between $10 and $16. Unprepossessing on the outside, inviting within. Dinner nightly. 143 First Street, Cambridge. (617) 492-4646.
Persian home cooking warms the heart of Beacon Hill. Azita Bina-Seibel and Babak Bina, the sister and brother co-owners of Lala Rokh, serve foods they remember from their childhood in northwestern Iran, and dining at their table is a feel-good experience. Give your palate something new to think about, starting, say, with a smoky roast of mashed eggplant garnished with goat's milk yogurt and mint oil, served warm. The Farsi name of the restaurant means, approximately, "rosy cheeks" in English. The entrées are priced from $12 to $16. Dinner nightly. 97 Mount Vernon Street, Boston. (617) 720-5511.
A small, green, friendly, and fun bistro in Boston's South End. Management modestly states that they dish up "rustic French country food...prepared simply, but with sophistication." The French rustics they have in mind live well. The menu is not extensive. Prices for the five entrées range from $19 to $23. Try the grilled duck breast with a cherry sauce gastrique, served with a tasty mess of beet greens and endive, and a remarkably good potato gratin in its own little skillet. If you can't get in, the renowned Hamersley's Bistro is just across the street, Aquitaine is nearby, and Icarus, and many another of the South End's many fine restaurants. The word truc is French slang for "thingamajig" or "whatchamacallit." We call it delightful. Dinner nightly, except Monday, and Sunday brunch. Valet parking. 560 Tremont Street, Boston. (617) 338-8070.
Named after the Dublin thoroughfare and indeed resembling an Irish pub although cleaner (according to one knowledgeable patron), Grafton Street does serve fish and chips, but the food is multiethnic, ranging from Louisiana crab cakes to baba ghanoush. Good for lunch or a pint. Lunch and dinner daily. 1280 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. (617) 497-0400.
One hears rumors of fabulous corned beef and pastrami at Manhattan Sammy's Deli, 1 Kendall Square in Cambridge. Sammy's is said to be "the closest Boston comes to a New York deli, complete with stale air." Who wants to schlepp all that way for lunch?
Just opened as this magazine went to press, at 1105 Massachusetts Avenue, a stroll from Harvard Square, is Johnny's Luncheonette ("Where the folks get their yolks"). The menu posted in the window lists many permutations of egg, nine kinds of salad, and a choice of hamburgers made either with lean, naturally raised beef or beef so greasy they give you extra napkins. Under soups comes "penicillin with matzoh balls"--and, among the sandwiches, corned beef ($7.95, with cole slaw and a pickle) and hot pastrami ($7.25). Johnny's is the offspring of an identically named place in Newton, Massachusetts, a town where they know from penicillin. Your culinary correspondents haven't ventured in, but are cautiously optimistic.
Rhythm & Spice is a Caribbean joint at 315 Massachusetts Avenue, by Central Square. It offers live (loud) reggae and calypso music on Thursday through Saturday nights. This is where you go for that curried goat.
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