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Chez Henri, Cambridge (long)

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  • Limster Jul 16, 2002 12:09 AM
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French cooking can sometimes be as painterly and elegant as as a Monet, or as lusty and rich as a Delacroix. At Chez Henri, the the bold bright hues of Van Gogh-ese paintings on the walls were rather reflective of colourful and spirited food.

I've heard this place described as French-Cuban on this board and elsewhere, but I think the kitchen has been reaching elsewhere for inspiration. The beef anticuchos appetizer has Latin America at its heart, but the meat sings to the accompaniment of a smoky, tomatoey sauce that was resonant with barbeque flavors. The texture of the supremely tender meat actually recalls beef satay from back home, and the fact that it hangs from a skewer only served to reinforce that image. The lustiness of the dish is nicely balanced by the small nest of sharp greens that hides a lovely surprise in the form of two coins of beets. Those last beet red bites call like a voice of California, pure and sweet.

A pair of grilled sardines paired with rich aioli provided a simpler but equal pleasure while returning to a satisfying view of the French Mediterrenean.

The luscious fat-rich meat in the steak frite was still French to core, down to the last shoestring length of potato (should I say pomme de terrre?), the modernized and more complicated red wine sauce not withstanding.

With the seared tuna, the kitchen traces the language of modern Cuba back to Spain. The two large triangles of tuna, smooth, firm and still glistening ruby on the inside, sit surrounded by the Spanish: a ring of moist soupy rice with mussels, spicy chorizo, bright tomatoes and a saffron signature that can only mean paella. But there is no conflict; the fish slipped into the conversation of flavors with natural ease. And the spicy, tangy broth, was delicious with the dollop of creme fraiche on the fish, in the same way borsch is wonderful with sour cream.

Desserts were pronounced with same boldness, but the exotic part of the language was more subtle, like the minty yogurt sauce that served as an unusual but workable companion to a milk chocolate terrine. The tamer lemon tart relied on a more classical pairing, with zesty lemon and cream touching off a heap of juicy blueberries, the true children of the summer.

In many fusion-y places, creativity is often more evident in the smaller pieces, the appetizers. Here, it seemed to me that the larger canvas of the main dishes afforded lovelier works. On the whole, I really appreciated the tight control and attention to sound fundamentals in the cookery. Cuisine of this sort always requires discipline and I'm glad that the flavor combinations were well edited, with no visible excess.

Without wine (but an ice tea), the tab came to $60 per person including tip and tax. A fair price, in my mind.

Of course, the Cuban sandwich is inevitable next time (thanks Psmith and others). But the $36 prix fixe menu also looked somewhat enticing -- I'd be grateful to hear what others think of this option, particularly since the dishes were distinct from those on the a la carte section.

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