CRÈME DE LA CREAM: Gingerbread pain perdu might be the best of an excellent dessert menu.
While culinary fads have come and gone, Chef Tony Maws has stuck by his sound principles. He gets the best ingredients, especially local ones, on a daily basis and serves up reliable French country cuisine. Maws also likes to make things in-house: ice creams, pickles, cured meats. Although several trends have broken his way — local sourcing, farmer's markets, slow food — he has avoided science-fiction preparation, much of the fusion craze, the worst of vertical food, several retro movements (French food is eternally retro), and the most dangerous temptation of all: the celebrity-chef game in which one is always on television, jetting to distant locations, and no longer actually cooking customers' fare.
|Craigie on Main | 853 Main Street, Cambridge | 617.497.5511 | Open Tues–Sat, 5:30–10 pm; and Sun, 11 am–2 pm and 5:30–10 pm | Bar menu till midnight | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access with steep ramp|
With all those pitfalls avoided, this way greatness lies. The three cramped basement rooms of Craigie Street Bistrot — Craigie on Main's former incarnation — earned a lot of respect. But this year the first floor of the lamented Groceria became available, so now Maws has two somewhat larger rooms to fill, a longer menu, and no dilution of quality whatsoever.
We began on French ground: butter with French bread, sourdough, and multigrain rolls. Each day brings new dinner and bar-snacks menus, chosen based on ingredient selection and finalized just before the doors open. We sat in the bar and looked at both, and so should you. Off the bar menu we snacked on half a dozen neat little two-bite "tempura cod cheeks" ($14). This sounds like a risky pick, but "cheeks" are ordinary white fish meat from the gill covers. (It is codfish tongues that have an unusual texture.)
From the regular appetizer list we enjoyed seven Maine smelts ($14). (Is it that long ago that fried smelts were on most Friday menus in Boston fish houses?) Our server helpfully pointed out that we could remove the spines or leave them in. Not only are these a great source of calcium, the fresh little fish were wonderfully sweet. A small portion of Maine mussels ($12), also on the dining-room appetizer list, was plump and served in a rich buttery sauce, with just a touch of fresh herbs but plenty of garlic. You may want to try a salad, or a winter vegetable soup, because greens are hard to come by with entrées in January. If that's the case, there's the house salad ($12). It's mostly frisee and some corn salad — there's your local greenhouse produce — and is somewhat overdressed, but has the unmistakable splendor of fresh lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil.
A skirt steak ($32) entrée benefited from a chili crust, which added some spice without detracting from the deep flavor of really excellent meat. Unfortunately, the little bit of spelt pilaf underneath — indicative of the mid-winter lack of greens — left us hungry for more. Three superior sea scallops ($30) came with a more extensive garnish of artichoke hearts and tiny clams. Again, though, the smidgeon of buckwheat polenta was less a starch than a condiment. Black sea bass ($23) off the bar menu brought only a square of fish with a spice crust, but, oh, what a delicious fish it was. Bits of grapefruit made for a surprising, effective sauce.
Two chunks of arctic char ($29), one leaned on top of another, were cooked at a low temperature — a little nod to science-lab food. I think the effect of this method is somewhat lost on a fatty salmonid, which is not bad when overcooked. I would rather have tried the scallops or sea bass prepared in this manner, in fact. Still, it was a nice dinner, complimented by a red sauce (not tomato, perhaps blood orange?) and fennel stalks.
Since entrées aren't guaranteed to fill you up, side dishes take on added importance. Those on offer our night were bone marrow ($10), for which Maws has become well known, and a big bowl of roast fingerling potatoes ($8) with a large clove of roasted garlic. The marrow here came from five pounds of split beef soup bones, with sea salt to bring up the flavor. This is not a dish for those who must avoid saturated fat and cholesterol. But if your Lipitor is earning its way, there's nothing as luxurious as the pure flavor of marrowfat and salt, spread onto toasted French bread.