Craigie Street Bistro (long)
- The Hungry Traveler
This is a review I wrote:
The gentrification of Cambridge has ushered in quite a few societal ills, but for the serious gourmet the lack of moderately priced eateries offering quality food may be the hardest to endure. Harvard Square, in particular, has become stratified between places offering mediocre and inauthentic ethnic fare, and overpriced 4-stars, which may or may not deserve their exalted rankings. Craigie Street Bistro, a new restaurant ten minutes by foot from the Square, is attempting to fill the void: it bills itself as a Bistro Moderne, a neighborhood hangout, and, rather paradoxically, a temple of elevated cuisine. And when a place as friendly as this undertakes such lofty goals, one begs desperately for it to succeed. Unfortunately, the kitchen has several major shortcomings that can prevent patrons from enjoying the dining experience.
My first warning came from a friend who had eaten at Craigie Street Bistro the week after it opened. I hope you like the people youve planned to dine with, because youre going to be spending a lot of time with them, he somewhat cryptically declared. My second warning came the moment I crossed the restaurants threshold and was greeted with the frazzled stare and capricious prattling of a hostess whos trying to make the best of a situation beyond her control. Inside was a scene of total chaos; it was like watching a 1940s screwball comedy, replete with wild-goose chases, futile requests, and broken dishes (literally). Its not quite so funny when its happening to you.
Often, a restaurant will have what is known in the industry as a soft opening, extending discounted prices to clients before it officially opens for business. This allows the kitchen to work out any kinks in the pacing and seasoning of the food, to perfect service, and to ensure that the operation runs smoothly. Clearly, Craigie Street Bistro did not have a soft opening. Despite having made and confirmed a reservation, we waited nearly forty-five minutes before being seated and another hour before there was a waiter available to take our order. In a small space with room for less than fifty customers, it shouldnt be more difficult to get the attention of a waiter than it is to hail a New York City taxi at rush hour on a rainy day. Our waiter, along with the rest of the staff, was well-meaning, but when, four hours into the meal, he asked if we needed a little more time to decide on dessert, our entire table screamed no! in unison.
The chef and owner, Tony Maws, has an impeccable pedigree. After stints working for Boston luminaries Chris Schlesinger at The East Coast Grill and Steve Johnson at The Blue Room, as well as for west-coast wunderkind Wolfgang Puck, he spent four years honing his skills as sous-chef at Clio, generally regarded as the finest restaurant in Boston. Maws may be a good cook, but the talent of a great chef lies in timing and delegationknowing exactly when the food is perfectly prepared and which jobs to assign to whom so that every dish for a table exits the kitchen at the same time, at the optimal degree of doneness. At our meal, and, according to the reports of friends, at most others, dishes were presented haphazardly, with some overdone, and others underdone.
But despite the unevenness of the kitchen, and the completely incompetent service, there is hope for Craigie Street Bistro. Maws actively seeks out the highest-quality seasonal ingredients, cultivating relationships with farmers and changing his menu each day to accommodate what is freshest on the market. This allows for a varied and ever-evolving list of items. True to the Bistro Moderne ideal, CSB offers French classics with unusual twists, but always maintains a commitment to local products.
The appetizers are consistently good, but several dishes testify to what this restaurant could be. A mixed fricassée of mushrooms was perfect, with tiny crisp green beans and crunchy almonds contributing an interesting textural counterpoint and argan oil, extracted from a tree found only in Morocco, adding a vibrant nut-like flavor with fruity overtones and a hint of bitterness. A market salad was saved from banality with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and a pleasantly acidic walnut vinaigrette. And a traditional offering of homemade duck rillettes, made with meat slowly cooked in seasoned fat and whipped into a smooth pate, was excellent, worthy of its status as paradigmatic bistro food. But both soups I tried were ordinary, the flavor of vegetables overwhelmed by the stock.
Skate wing with a mustard-based sauce and fresh tomatoes was exquisitely yielding in consistency, yet still maintained a toothsomeness. Sadly, that was an exception. Entrees suffered more from the timing problems in the kitchen. Confit of chicken, which requires a thirty-five minute wait, should be so meltingly tender that only a fork is required to cut it. Instead, it arrived overdone and dry. The accompaniment of polenta, however, was the best Ive ever had, each bite so creamy that I was tempted to ask for an extra serving. Skirt steak was an ordinary piece of meat, but redeemed by the wonderfully piquant red chile sauce. Its side of grilled bone marrow was a disaster though, lacking all of the richness of flavor that usually makes this one of my favorite foods; here, it was no more than a greasy mound of fat, devoid of any taste whatsoever.
Desserts are standard, but good. A seasonal fruit crisp was nicely tart, and a sliver of chocolate mousse terrine was appropriately rich. Only an apricot poached in Muscat, a sweet dessert wine, was a disappointmentit was too mushy. The real stars are the scoops of homemade ice cream that accompany each order- the espresso, canela (cinnamon), and lemon verbena were all outstanding.
The wine list, too, is a real winner. Its not extensive, but offers a targeted selection of recent vintages of French varietals at refreshingly affordable prices, with ten or so wines offered by the glass. A 2000 Alain Voge Cotes du Rhone was compellingfull of black fruits and berry flavors. The dessert wines are especially enchanting; try the1999 Jaboulet Muscat for a sweet ending to your meal. CSB makes it possible to enjoy quality wines without the outrageous markups that usually go hand in hand with restaurant profits.
Craigie Street Bistro is far from perfect: it really is difficult to overlook the service. But its been open less than a month, and its the closest thing to a neighborhood restaurant that we have near Harvard Square. Its trying so hard to be a convivial local touchstone: inviting customers to stop by during the day for a cup of coffee or in the evening for a glass of wine, offering the restaurant space for community meetings, and featuring a three-course reduced rate neighborhood menu, that its hard not to be won over by its ideals. For now, Im crossing my fingers, and desperately hoping that CSB can overcome its problems. Wouldnt it be nice to be able to drop into the bistro, settle down at one of the red banquettes, and while away the evening over a good book and a glass of wine?
NB I went back last night for a light meal and the service was markedly improved. It seems they now have 3 people in the kitchen, and this certainly helped with getting things out of the kitchen on a timely basis.
It's for the Harvard Crimson's weekly magazine. I'll be writing a food column with some reviews but also lots of general food info and articles. You wouldn't believe how insular most students are! I'm hoping to inspire people to get out a little more.
This week a short piece on Formaggio Kitchen, a report on Hell Night at ECG. Next week, baking with Rene at High Rise plus a review of Cafe Baraka. If anyone has any ideas for interesting stories I would really appreciate a heads-up.