Recently, I took Jess to Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge. Last year I had bought my parents a gift certificate there for their anniversary, because it had received many positive reviews and because my mom seems to like any restaurant with bistro in the title. The concept of the bistro is to bring the market-driven approach of restaurants like Craft and Blue Hill to the Boston area. Obviously no one trumpets the virtues of serving stale, decaying produce and every chef nowadays venerate seasonality, but restaurants like Craigie Street differ in that they (theoretically) write the menu each day based around the pristine ingredients they buy at the market that morning. Craigie Bistrot takes pains to emphasize this approach; on their website, you can find pictures of chef Tony Maws carefully inspecting produce in the morning and consulting the staff about what to make that night. While every chef at least pays lip service to picking fresh and buying local, Craigie Bistro is the first Boston-area restaurant that I can think of to make this its central conceit.
In keeping with this produce-based, Chez Panisse East theme, the restaurant sells itself as a more casual and personable destination than more formal Boston options like Clio, No. 9 Park, or L’espalier. Thus the waiters wear jeans, and the winelist is a sheaf of papers bound on a clipboard. The restaurant is built into the basement of a Cambridge brownstone and shares parking with an adjoining apartment (it has four parking spaces in the lot). The restaurant website gives out “parking secrets” to find a space once these four are filled. The dining room’s design and ambience reflect this comforting and casual ambition. While it was indeed in a basement, the room was a pleasant beige, decorated with small French paintings and other assorted Gallic touches meant to emulate a restaurant one might find in the Provencal countryside. Nevertheless, a few disconcerting elements intruded. A fairly large exposed cast-iron radiator sat to the right of our table, and when Jess went to the bathroom, the effect made by the laminated French postcards hung on the wall was undermined by the exposed pipe she needed to duck under to avoid hitting her head. Overall, though, I didn’t share the complaints I’ve heard from others about the space, instead finding it to be restrained and enjoyable.
We went there on a Sunday night with a 9:30 dinner reservation. We made the reservation this late so as to have the “Chef’s Whim,” a tasting menu of four courses for $40 (or six for $55) which they offer Wednesdays and Sundays after 9 PM. The day of, they still had a reservation available at 8:30, so we figured we’d get there at 9, and still probably manage to be seated as soon as we arrived. Unfortunately, I’m awful with directions and Cambridge is particularly impossible for me to navigate. So, despite entering Cambridge by 8:50, we actually found our way to the restaurant (after a bit of healthy bickering) at a quarter to ten.
When I made the reservation, I told them we’d be having the chef’s whim, so (somewhat perplexingly) we never received any menus. The waitress brought the wine list soon after we sat down, and told us she had heard we’d be having the chef’s whim. I found the waitress’s continual use of “whim” as a noun basically meaning “dinner” (as in “how was your whim”, “We hope you’re excited for your whim,” and “The chef gives really good whim”) to be a bit silly, but she was nice, perky, and upbeat. She asked if we had any allergies (we do not) or dietary restrictions. Jess told her that she didn’t eat fish (I had mentioned this in making the reservation, but they had said over the phone that they were unsure whether they could accommodate this request unless she wanted the vegetarian four course menu). After Jess said she didn’t want fish, the waitress went right into selling the six course menu, saying that the chef could still do the extended whim for us which was only $55, which made it seem (to me) that the only way we could avoid seafood was to order the larger menu. Much confusion ensued, but eventually we ordered the four course menu with Jess allowed to avoid the much dreaded fish.
This was the first of a few things the waitress did which may in fact have been completely innocuous but felt like a somewhat grating upselling aimed at getting us to spend more money. There was the tried and true (and very common) restaurant trick of presenting our choice of waters as if tap was not an option (here, the waitress said, “for water would you like a Perrier or maybe a Pellegrino?” which seemed to me like a particularly hard sell). Then when I asked the waitress her recommendation between two red half bottles – a Bordeaux and a Loire -- she asked if I was only planning on ordering one half bottle, and then, given that I was, these two would be too heavy to go with all four courses of food and recommended a more expensive Burgundy (for those who know wine, which I don’t really, the Bordeaux was a Bordeaux Superieur Domaine de Courteillac and the Burgundy was something – it’s not on the online wine list – from Chassagne Montrachet.) I went with her advice and the wine was good, but given the four courses that they served, I thought a bigger red would have been completely fine.
They gave us two types of bread, which were both very good. The butter was also quite nice (sourced, I’m sure, from only the most pampered cows). For the first course, the bus boy mixed up the two of us and gave Jess a raw salmon with some greens, baby potatos, and some form of legume. I was given a sliver of duck prosciutto alongside one of lardo (a strip of raw pig lard). He also tried to explain the components of each dish but sort of forgot halfway through and apologized. We switched plates and dug in. Jess wasn’t particularly excited about eating raw pig lard (I was) and gave me one of the two meats. I could have sworn that she actually ended up eating the lardo and I got the duck; she refuses to believe me. Whatever I had from her, it was excellent, the meat was well-seasoned and unctuously perfect. I also enjoyed the salmon, finding the crunchy greens, whatever they were, to be a nice contrast to the tender salmon which also featured assertive but not-overpowering seasoning. I found this sure hand with seasoning to be a pleasantly shared characteristic of all the food we had at Craigie Street.
For the next course we both received a terrine of three livers with crusty toasted bread and accompaniments placed in a circle around the terrine (these were fairly standard and included fleur de sel, cracked black pepper, homemade mustard, pickled shallots and a couple of others that I can’t remember). This dish is a French mainstay, and it was quite similar to and even better executed than the (excellent) liverwurst I had at the Café at the Modern in New York. The terrine had a deep livery taste and spread well on the bread. It went particularly well with the mustard. Unfortunately, Jess also doesn’t like liver which made this 0 for 2 for her. The third course was a smoked quail with bone marrow, bok choy, marinated shitake mushrooms, served on top of an onion puree. Again, I loved this; Jess was sort of grossed out by the bone marrow (she’s really not a picky eater, I swear) and had to sort of pick through that to eat the dish. I thought the mushrooms were particularly tasty and that the onion puree went well with the quail. The only suggestion I would make would be to add more of the vegetables to create a crunchy contrast with the chewy bird.
Desert was the one dish that we both thought was excellent. The waitress brought Jess a market fruit crisp with crème fraiche ice cream. I had a little bit of this dish, so while it seemed good enough I couldn’t really taste the crème fraiche in the ice cream and didn’t know which fruit had been bought at the market that day. The sour milk panna cotta I had was also excellent. It was served in a flat rectangle, which for some reason I liked better than the usual semicircular orb panna cotta usually comes in. I also found this to be a bit looser than most panna cotta, and I liked the subtle sour milk flavor that distinguished it. It came with a sauce of blackberry coulis as well as preserved quince and kumquats. I didn’t love the quince, but I thought the perfectly chewy kumquats were delicious. The meal ended with the waitress bringing two madeleines (somewhat flavorless and a bit too chewy). She asked how the whim was and if we’d come back again. I thought that was a sort of a weird question (it’s not like you can say no), and I said probably (which was true for me because I’ll be in Cambridge next year ) and Jess said definitely (which is not, because she didn't really like the savory courses she had there).
Overall, I thought the meal was a great value for the forty dollar a person price point the chef’s whim offered. Of course, the sacrifice you make for putting yourself in the chef’s hands is that you don’t have control over what you get. For someone like me who eats anything, that’s not a problem, but people who are more selective (i.e. don’t eat offal, seafood, or less conventional types of meat) won’t necessarily enjoy it. The food was very good despite the service being mediocre albeit well-meaning. I also appreciated the restaurant serving their normal courses for the lower price, since many times restaurant bargains like restaurant week end up getting you food which isn’t quite up to the quality of the rest of the menu. On the other hand, on normal nights, Craigie Bistrot charges only slightly less than Boston’s most pricy choices like Clio and No. 9 Park (14-18 for appetizers, 29-40 for entrees). If I’d been paying those prices, I might have left less happy, but as it was, I’d definitely recommend trying the chef’s whim at Craigie Street Bistrot.