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Mar 25, 2007 09:07 AM

A walk north in Cambridge--two kinds of worldliness

On a nice day two weekends ago (?I think--I'm losing track of time), we went for a long walk from our base camp near Harvard Square, up to Fresh Pond, around the reservoir, and back down Huron Ave and then Concord. By the time we got to Huron, we were getting pretty hungry.

We stumbled across Ortanique, which has had regular praise here, but which we'd never visited. This is a very small and sweet Jamaican place with reasonably-priced meals. The owner and his wife were both there, serving up lunches and keeping half an eye on the wildlife documentary playing on the little TV that sits in the kitchen. I had the soup of the day, a red bean soup which was slightly spicy and fully filling at $5.00. My colleague-in-chow got the jerk chicken, which she reported was excellent. The soup was nothing fancy, but it was delicious. My colleague's jerk chicken was flavorful and nicely (and freshly) cooked. "It was spicy, but not that spicy--just enough to linger a bit" she reports in retrospect. She had the home-made ginger beer; as a fan of ginger she loved it, and as not-such-a-fan-of-ginger I acknowledged that if you love ginger you will love the ginger beer. I liked the slight ginger tinge in the sorrell drink, made from a Jamaican plant that the owner tells us has all sorts of excellent anti-oxidant properties; if you like the pomegranate-cranberry side of the juice spectrum you'll like this. The soup came with some tasty Iggy's bread--the only touch that seemed more of the neighborhood than of the food's origins. Other than that the food does not feel at all Huron-ified; it is not a nouveau interpretation of Jamaican food, it is Jamaican food.

This place is a paradox, as its owner acknowledged: this is about as far from a Jamaican neighborhood as it gets. Contrast this to Flames, the two-restaurant Caribbean place in Boston (I've only been to the one on Huntington Ave.): there the emphasis is big starchy portions sitting in warming trays, and then when you select them, jammed into styrofoam containers that can barely hold them. Really great in its own way, and certainly authentic-seeming, but different. Ortanique is trying to walk a difficult line. It wants to fit into the neighborhood, but it also wants to be authentic. The food doesn't feel like its conceding to the pseudo-cosmopolitanism of fusion cuisine; there's no lemongrass jerk chicken or whatever. It's just nicely presented as if you were an honored guest at the house of sedate, family-oriented, middle-class Jamaican people. Not knowing much about Jamaica or its cuisine I can't comment on its authenticity but it seems like a nicely done and fresh version of other Jamaican food I've eaten that was being served to Jamaican people in other places, so take that for what it's worth.

The owner says he based his business plan on his observation that the people in the neighborhood are worldly, and can appreciate food from other parts of the world. Although his restaurant has been going along for some time now, he is apparently still anxious about its future, urging us to promote it to others. I'm glad to. This restaurant is frankly improbable in its combination of cuisine and location, but in that combination it encourages a kind of worldliness I appreciate--the worldliness of chow and of cross-cultural kindness expressed through making chow, selling it, buying it and consuming it. For all his apparent worries, the place clearly had plenty of regulars; we hope to become semi-regulars ourselves.

There was a very different kind of worldliness down the way, at Formaggio Kitchen, where we topped off our Jamaican meal with some samples of their crazily tasty and impossibly rich 30+ cheeses fondue which they make on the weekends, and a cookie for each of us (mine was a chocolate-almond macaroon, and it was delicious). We tried to hold off on buying some of the expensive and delicious cheeses of the world, though we did eat a couple of samples; the fondue sample was just a nostalgic reminder of the time several weeks before when we'd driven there and shared take-out fondue in our car while parked at Fresh Pond--before an earlier walk around the pond. (That time we had bought the cheeses, and were very very happy when we ate them that week, though considerably poorer for it.) Anyone who's missed this place--as I had, idiotically, for some time--would do well to come here for a spectacular set of options of fancy cheeses, desserts, and other gourmet tastiness, with nice helpful folks ready to provide their expertise. Finally, the coffee they serve at FK (who knew?) is spectacular--rich, dark, full of flavor without bitterness--and was a great way to end our break from our long walk.

As the weather gets warmer I would strongly recommend this trek for folks in the area.

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  1. Great review, thanks! Ortanique is one of my favorites in Cambridge and is definitely worth a detour. The food is excellent and very authentic, a lot like you're walking into someone's home and they just happen to be whipping up some food and offer you some. Great place.

    I will say that my first visit there I was totally floored by the rice and peas served with the jerk chicken, but on the second visit it was toned down a lot. I have read that they are not always consistent with the cooking, as it depends on who is in the kitchen.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Sgt Snackers

      I'm looking forward to Ortanique, even more so now that you've contributed this terrific review! Thanks!

      As for FK, I must say that their attitude has always irritated me. Twice I've been in there, healthy roll of greens in my wallet, prepared to put out for really slammin cheese. And twice, they've been dismissive, judgmental, and critical of me and my friends, of our choices, and incredibly obnoxious when answering our questions. And, apart from my lack of a Nobel Prize, I match the Cantabrigian stereotype to a T--lefty, well-travelled, advanced degree, etc etc. Bottom line: I'll take the occasional trip to Farmstead in Providence and stick with the Whole Foods up here for cheese.

      Thanks again for the Ortanique rec though!

      1. re: poho

        I go to FK nearly weekly and have never experienced anyone being critical of my choices...They choose cheeses to sell based on quality and taste, I can't imagine any of them questioning any choice. Ask for Robert next time. He is the most knowledgeble down to earth nicest guy that works there. He's a real asset to the store.

        1. re: tallullah

          agreed... I have had nothing but helpful and generous service. I love all cheese but remain pretty lacking in knowledge, probably because I'm so undiscerning. But everyone who has ever helped me there has given me Cabot cheddar or plain brie with the same appreciation as a rarer or more subtle choice, plus they steer very well if you give them some thoughts on what you want.

        2. re: poho

          I, too, had a similar experience to the one described by poho. It only happened once, but on this unfortunate occasion, the description that they can be "dismissive" was dead on, and involved not just one staff member, but two. They flat out treated us like bumpkins.

          Now, we have only had one experience like that, but it really put us off from returning to the Cambridge store. We continue to frequent the South End shop, and they have always provided courteous, friendly help, and stellar advice. We did attend one of Robert's cheese classes in the Cambridge store, and it was really great - highly recommended.

      2. Yes, great post. I love chow-treks and Boston is perfect for this (I've taken several routes from Davis Square to Back Bay for instance, stopping for food and drink along the way). This sounds like a fun walk and I will try it as the nice weather has finally arrived.