Fresh local ingredients, an inspired chef and a neighborhood feel are the keys to this French restaurant close to Harvard Square.
Hidden downstairs off a courtyard on a leafy residential street in Cambridge Massachusetts, Craigie Street Bistrot is well off the beaten path of Boston’s “Left Bank.” But good news travels fast, and this comfortable and welcoming French-style restaurant is filled nightly with patrons eager to taste the day’s menu.
And it is literally the day’s menu. The a la carte dishes change daily, and that menu is always available. But the irresistible deal and the most fun is one of the several special menus.
The feel is French and so is the inspiration, but anyone familiar with the typical French bistro will notice a lot more vegetables in the plates Chef/owner Tony Maws sets before his guests. These are seasonal, reflecting his passion for using fresh, naturally grown ingredients that are sourced as locally as possible.
Maws’ guiding principle – and what keeps his bistro truly French in spirit -- is that the quality of ingredients governs the quality of the dish. Vegetable varieties chosen for their flavor instead of their shipping life, organically raised meats, seafood fresh from the boat and the occasional wild food brought to the door by foragers are the raw materials Maws chooses to work with. A meal there reminds us of how good these things taste -- especially in the hands of a chef who appreciates the difference.
Adding to the neighborhood feel is Maws’ dedication to providing high quality meals at affordable neighborhood prices, which he demonstrates in his $36 three-course prix fixe “Neighborhood Menu” served all evening on Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and after 9:00 P.M. on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Dining there recently, we chose instead the $55 six-course “Chef’s Whim” menu. We could have chosen the $39.99 four-course version, but we decided to let Chef Maws strut his stuff in style. Glad we did, too.
First came Wellfleet clams with mustard oil squid noodles and coriander broth. by squid noodles, I don’t mean noodles made with squid ink – I mean that the noodles are thin, evenly cut strips of squid, cooked in that narrow window of tenderness. How can three clams, half a cup of squid strips, a little broth and a splash of oil, we wonder, have so many complex layers of flavor, separately and together?
Soy and butter-braised dayboat scallops were next and the scallops, too, were cooked to the second – that moment when they are hot through, but still translucent and almost melty. Mascarpone mushrooms with rock shrimp tempura followed, then a potage of Napa cabbage with two ricotta gnocchi dotted with caraway oil.
The size and pacing of each dish was ample for savoring and discussing, but not so big as to cause that inward “not one more course!” groan. So although we could have walked out satisfied before it arrived, we were still ready to be delighted by the Vermont organic quail stuffed with boudin noir and garlic buds. The boned quail was cut in half, with center slice separated and the two ends standing, an attractive, but not contrived architectural presentation. The dark, spicy boudin noir (leave it to the French to have such an elegant name for blood sausage!) adds richness and flavor, as well as countering the slight dryness inherent in quail.
Dessert was different for each of us. Mine was a chilled soup of rhubarb and hibiscus with yogurt ice cream and a hint of tarragon that mellowed the sharpness of rhubarb. Juliette’s was Sour Milk Panna Cotta with tangerine and candied fennel and a wild berry coulis. She described it as hot, cold, intensely sweet, smooth, crisp and chewy, all at once.
The bistro’s atmosphere is informal and genial, the wait staff professional, personable, well informed and unhurried. They were willing and able to discuss ingredients, techniques, wines and pairings.
I’d like to tell you more about the wines, but I can’t. My attention was kept so thoroughly riveted on the food – its flavors, aromas, presentation and complexities – that I really didn’t fully focus on the wines. I did note -- and remember -- a 2005 Sauvignon "Grand Vin de la Vallée de la Loire" Domaine Fournier that accompanied the earlier courses admirably.
Like the a la carte menu, the “Chef’s Whim” changes daily, and is served on Wednesday and Sunday evenings after 9:00 pm. These are not, I should add, the same dishes that will be on that night’s regular menu, or if one of them is, it will likely have some impromptu variations. These meals find the chef having fun in the kitchen, at his most creative and spontaneous; you can choose a meat/fish or vegetarian option.
Craigie Street Bistrot is at 5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, Massachusetts; (617) 497-5511. It is a 10 minute leisurely walk from Harvard Square.