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Off the charts, off the map
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  August 20, 2008
4.0 4.0 Stars
TRIPLE THREAT: A trio of sea scallops wows.

Benatti | 617.492.6300 | 1128 Cambridge Street, Cambridge | Open Tues–Thurs And Sun, 6–9:30 pm, and Fri & Sat, 6–10 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | Valet parking Wednesday–Saturday, shared with Midwest Grill next door, $10 | Sidewalk-level access; tight passages
It’s always a gamble to put a good restaurant in a bad place. The bet is that your food will attract people no matter the location. If it pays off, customers will fork over South End prices while you shell out only East Cambridge rent.

Now, Andrea Benatti’s food is wonderful enough to attract people anywhere, and it rightfully commands top dollar (maybe a little less if you stick to the house-made pasta, and many will do just that). But his choice of locale — east of Inman Square, between Midwest Grill and East Cost Grill — is a little dangerous. Fans of those excellent restaurants might notice that some of the bottles of wine at Benatti are, like, quadruple retail. That kind of mark-up requires not only legendary cuisine, but a remote location. (I know a stretch in West Roxbury that would not only fit that bill, and is a lot closer to my house.)

What Benatti (the restaurant) does have in its favor is the undivided attention of Benatti (the chef) and his Brazilian partner Anna Encarnacao, who possibly marks up the wine and chats with the neighbors, and certainly picks outstanding Brazilian background music. By undivided attention, I mean that not only does the chef actually cook, but he painted the art on the wall, talks with the patrons, and fixes anything you don’t like.

For us, other than an undercooked steak and some heavy salt, there was nothing we didn’t adore. Food starts with Tuscan bread and dip in superior extra-virgin olive oil floating on excellent balsamic vinegar. These are also the condiments for the evening’s first masterpiece, a simple appetizer of grilled vegetables ($11). Simple is a deceptive term, because each item on the platter may be the best I’ve ever tasted. This level of grillwork cannot be delegated. Benatti’s grilled red bell pepper is so deeply flavored it could be an entrée. His slice of grilled eggplant is all richness, no bitterness. His two pieces of grilled asparagus redefine the term. His grilled slice of fennel is symphonic — no, operatic. Even a slice of zucchini makes you want more . . . zucchini. You are perhaps vegan? Order two of these and sneer at the carnivores of the world.

Or perhaps not, because there is an appetizer of three sea scallops ($15) of such surpassing flavor, so brilliantly enhanced by a reduction of stock and fresh-squeezed orange juice, so artfully set off on a little sauté of baby spinach and shaved fennel, that it, too, might be an entrée. Our third appetizer, a half-order of fettuccine Bolognese ($13.50; $21/full order), was close to the same standard, with the unmistakable chew of house-made pasta and a rich, complex ragù of a couple of meats, including perhaps some sausage, in tomato sauce. There was too much salt, however, so see if you can negotiate less.

My favorite entrée was grilled salmon ($27). Because of the leanness of wild Alaskan salmon, it works with a rich sauce. Benatti provides a genuine beurre blanc, with lemon refreshing the pungency of the reduced wine and butter. Whipped potatoes are brought to haute cuisine with a topping of caramelized leeks.

Not that there was anything wrong with my ossobucco ($32). Veal shin falling off the marrow bone? Check. High but savory salt content? Check. Saffron risotto? Double check. In the food world, there’s a lot of discussion about how risotto can be melty and al dente at the same time. The discussion ends here, with perfect risotto and a forthright saffron flavor.

Filet mignon ($36) came to the table rare, as it would be served in Florence, instead of medium as ordered. No problem, it was whisked back to the kitchen for reheating. The sauce of reduced Barolo wine, cranberries, and mushrooms with a dose of truffle oil was excellent. What’s up with the whipped potatoes? Perhaps to an Italian chef this exotic Peruvian vegetable is the latest thing.

The wine list is all Italian, including Sicily and Sardinia, and a couple of bottles from a castle owned by a member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (S.M.O.M.), which is almost another country. Prices begin in the high $30s. Our bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna riserva ($11/glass; $44/bottle) was excellent wine, although the list has it as a 2004 and the bottle we got was a 2005. Cannonau is a traditional grape of Sardinia that genetic research declares to be grenache as grown in Spain and Southern France — all one part of a Catalan empire. Based on the high alcohol and sophisticated dark bramble fruit nose of this Sardinian wine, I’m not so sure. Grenache, even in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, makes for a lighter wine with more of a strawberry aroma.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle , Food and Cooking , Foods ,  More more >
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