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East by Northeast

1128 Cambridge Street, Cambridge
617-876-0286; http://exnecambridge.com Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

East By Northeast is not a typical Chinese restaurant. Rather, the intimate Inman Square eatery serves “seasonally driven Chinese-inspired cuisine” that pleases the palate—and tickles the intellect. Owner and chef Phillip Tang is a thoughtful cook who magically merges Asian comfort food, in the form of hand-rolled noodles, bread, and dumplings, with an intricate mix of textures and flavors in dishes that defy pigeonholing. 

Take the salad of Asian pear, pink beets, scallions, cashews, and slabs of silky tofu ($7). It’s cold and spicy, crunchy and slick…and sweet and sharp. Or consider that dainty yellow floret of cauliflower served with the “duo of buns” (a variation of the standard Chinese steamed buns): the floret, tart and tender with a bergamot-like flavor, deftly sets off the mini-meaty treats of pulled pork and smoked ham ($8). And that earthy purée beneath the succulent pork dumplings spiced just right with scallion slivers? It’s a blend of apple and onion essence. Tang, who studied East Asia and studio art in college before heading to culinary school, engages the mind as much as the mouth. 

Everything is fresh; the meat comes from sustainable farms and the winter menu reflects locally grown produce like celery root, rutabaga, carrots, parsnips, and apples. Everything is served tapas-style, encouraging sharing and tucking into much of what’s on the short but satisfying menu. 

This communal feel is accentuated by the dining room, which seats 24 people, at most, plus four at high-backed stools at the bar. Carefully selected wines and beers are served, along with refreshing home-made sodas with flavors like lemony ginger and cilantro with lime. The walls are rich saffron and blood-red, reminiscent of Tibetan monks’ robes, and the lighting is nicely dim. An opening in the back wall offers entertaining views of the kitchen; torsos and forearms in sturdy kitchen whites bustle about amid vats and steam. 

Tang worked at other Cambridge “real food” favorites—T.W. Foods and the Hungry Mother—before envisioning his own place, which has drawn excited attention among food-lovers and recently earned him the title “Best Up-and-Coming Chef” in Boston Magazine.

We started with the napa cabbage salad ($6), which a companion deemed “skunky” in the best sense: crisp and pungent, with thin radishes and scallions and wet chunks of pink grapefruit dressed in a honey-pepper vinaigrette. An ascetic, almost astringent concoction, it was interesting to contemplate—and to look at, with its pale greens and florid fruit. It was also the perfect foil for the hot pork ragout over thick noodles with a poached egg on top ($11), a rich mélange of juicy, salty, filling food with a spicy kick. 

The salad also came in handy as a complement to the incredible rice croquettes ($7). Crispy-fried on the outside, with a risotto-like texture inside, these treats were “meaty” and vegetarian. The scallion pancakes ($7) amplified with bits of other vegetables were also terrific: not at all greasy, and served with a bold, roasted-garlic-and-chili dipping sauce. Try all forms of the noodles—the long wide ones and the stubby ones—with the range of meats and sauces; we loved the lamb with chunks of carrots and delicata squash ($12). Above all, don’t neglect those tricky veggies, Brussels sprouts ($7). Never have they tasted this good: Tang serves up this chewy roughage infused with garlic, thick bits of hand-cured bacon, lemon zest, and spiced rutabaga relish.

East By Northeast serves a small complimentary dessert, which varies. One night, it was a cube of basil- and lime-infused coconut panna cotta over crispy rice; a fittingly novel end to this “Chinese-inspired” meal.