Boldly delicious Venezuelan food is served in an intimate dining room at the newly opened Orinoco (56 JFK Street, 617-354-6900; orinocokitchen.com). Arepas, grilled corn-pocket sandwiches, come with a variety of fillings; we liked the black beans and a white salty cheese called palmizulia ($5.75). For entrées, the cordero tradicional, pistachio-encrusted lamb chops with mint mojo, a spicy sauce with garlic and olive oil, is delicious ($19). For dessert-lovers, the torta fluida, a molten chocolate cake as beautiful as it sounds, is a must ($5). Try to sit on the outdoor patio, set way back from the street; it’s a romantic spot on a summer evening.
If you crave Indian food, step across the street to a 2011 newcomer to the Square: Maharaja (57 JFK Street, 617-547-2757; maharajaboston.com). With windows overlooking Winthrop Park, this large, grandly decorated space (complete with a brass palace-like front door and ornately carved wooden dining chairs) works well for groups. The menu features a wide selection of vegetarian dishes along with some more unusual specialty appetizers, such as the lollipop chicken ($9.95), an Indo-Chinese snack of wings stuffed with seafood, or the jeera (cumin) scallops, served in a creamy saffron sauce ($9.95).
Since 1997 Sandrine’s (8 Holyoke Street, 617-497-5300; sandrines.com) has offered richly prepared Alsatian food in a quiet, posh setting. The fare is essentially French—with a thick German accent. Diners can tuck into the braised organic rabbit leg with comforting egg noodles flavored with lardon and a grainy mustard sauce ($25). Or they may like the choucroute garnie au Riesling, which features bauernwurst, boudin blanc (a white sausage), grilled pork loin, and ham hock, all slow-cooked over a tangy mound of sauerkraut ($25).
The traditional dish is the tarte flambée, or flammekueche ($10-$13), a crisp flatbread layered with creamy cheese and a choice of savory elements, from hickory-smoked bacon to artichoke hearts. One is plenty for a meal, we think, especially when coupled with the pear and gorgonzola salad ($12) with spicy almonds.
For exquisite Italian food, Rialto (1 Bennett Street, 617-864-1200; rialto-restaurant.com) at the Charles Hotel is the place to go, especially with its pretty outdoor patio. The menu offers three courses, side dishes—and some of the most enticing desserts in the Square (e.g., try the tiramisu parfait with candied chestnuts, walnuts, and maple fudge). For all those who don’t often get to New England, the lobster bucatini (thick straws of spaghetti) prepared with green and red tomatoes, chilis, and saffron is a delicate delight ($16/$22), while the eggplant parmesan is atypically served with capers and pine nuts ($25).
For more moderately priced ethnic food and a lively atmosphere, there’s always the popular Border Café (32 Church Street, 617-864-6100; bordercafe.com), which serves large portions of Tex-Mex fare (fajitas, quesadillas, and such) along with Mexican beers and all styles of margaritas. It is a small chain and the place can border on boisterous, but the food is fresh and the colorful Mexican-style décor and prevailing mood make it hard not to have fun.
Middle Eastern food can be found at both the Algiers Coffee House (40 Brattle Street, 617-492-1557; no website) and at the smaller, mostly takeout joint, Sabra Grill (20 Eliot Street, 617-868-5777; sabrafoods.com/sabra_restaurant.htm).
The charming Algiers, atop the Brattle Theatre, is a longtime favorite for a range of goodies, from richly brewed coffees and teas, Italian sodas, and a new menu of beers and wines, to homemade merguez (lamb sausage, $9.95), expert omelets ($7.75), fresh baba ghanoosh ($9.95), and a light lentil and rice dish with fried onions called mujaddara ($8.95). The restaurant’s hours—8 a.m. to midnight—also allow plenty of time for noshing, studying, brooding, or long conversations. Sabra is a more utilitarian place. It has about 10 seats and offers the usual hummus and falafel sandwiches ($6.95), along with a fine kibbee (baked meat pies, $7.50) and spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pies, $7.50), lamb and chicken shish-kebab plates ($16.95-$19.95), and succulent shawarma (that vertical, rotating bulk of stacked meats grilled on a skewer) served with rice pilaf, beans, and tahini sauce ($14.95).
To avoid crowds in the Square, take a short walk north on Mass. Ave. to the red-fronted Chez Henri—a French bistro with Latin flair (1 Shephard Street, 617-354-8980; chezhenri.com). Superb cocktails, including mojitos, are served at the cozy bar. In the adjacent dining room, festive yet comfortably elegant, you may opt for the sassy ceviche appetizer with avocado and mango-lime sauce ($14). The more traditional steak frites ($29) or Cornish game hen with red kuri squash polenta ($24) are perfectly cooked, or try the novel chickpea-flour crêpes with cardamom-scented eggplant, winter greens, and chévre ($27). For dessert, we could not resist the banana tart in a macadamia nut crust with vanilla créme, toasted coconut, and dark chocolate ($9). That’s a sure way to celebrate anything.