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November 05, 2009

Craigie on Main

Squid Noodles, Lobster with Vinaigrette, Brandade Fritter Dominic Armato

And now, a Boston restaurant that didn't disappoint.

Craigie on Main had been sitting at the top of my hit list before our arrival, when I did a little browsing to see what we'd have to look forward to in our new town. And as anybody who's spending time reading a food blog no doubt knows, when you do enough of these searches, you develop habits for parsing the information you read -- who's knowledgeable, who isn't, whether something this guy likes will appeal to you, etc. Almost every restaurant has its detractors, if for no other reason than because it doesn't have any detractors. Universal acclaim is rare, but that's what Craigie on Main seemed to inspire. So I was, no doubt, quite anxious to stop by.

Bigeye Tuna SashimiDominic Armato

Craigie on Main and its head chefly person, the highly-decorated Tony Maws, like to refer to their cuisine as "refined rusticity". And while I found our meal far more refined than rustic, I think I understand what they're getting at. Craigie on Main is one of the new breed of restaurant that's highly dogmatic about local, organic, sustainable, etc. -- all of the things that I respect, but don't particularly want to hear about unless the food's good. Restaurants like this, whether they're walking or merely talking, are a dime a dozen these days. What's far less common is to find one that takes those "Hey, we just got this from that farm over there" sensibilities and applies them to very crisp, highly refined cuisine. In that sense, Craigie on Main walks the line. Their ingredient acquisition is old-timey, but what they do with those ingredients is anything but. The room is cozy and homey and a little rustic, and every seat offers a view of the gleaming, modern, starkly white open kitchen. Many of the roots are traditional French, but the food is... well, here's what we had.

Herb-Marinated ScallopDominic Armato

The evening's ten course tasting menu (of course we went blowout style) was kicked off with an amuse trio, and the level of refinement of which this kitchen is capable was immediately evident. All three tastes were meticulously crafted, beautifully plated and intensely flavored -- and intentionally or not, seemed to thematically span three continents, to boot. Finely julienned squid noodles that had been dressed with nuoc cham and fried shallot were a textural delight, and despite their Eastern influences almost struck me as slightly creamy. A sliver of chilled lobster with a lime vinaigrette and chaotically-shaped rice cracker evoked, to me, the ceviches of South America. The France and Italy of old Europe were on display with the third bite, a crisp on the outside creamy on the inside brandade fritter with a midnight black squid ink anchoiade that provided a much-appreciated dirty funk to go along with the brandade's light creaminess. What can I say? I have a weakness for the defensive mechanisms of cephalopods.

Pork Belly TortelliniDominic Armato

Next up was a bit of raw seafood, a slice of bigeye tuna with a myriad of accompaniments that nonetheless flowed beautifully. Topped with a small salad of red onion and shiso, sitting atop slivered avocado and dressed with a harissa rose vinaigrette, it played far less busy than it looked and demonstrated that you can throw a horde of ingredients at raw fish without getting clumsy about it. Our third dish struck me as the weak link of the evening, and that's a compliment. Sea scallops were marinated with a number of herbs, skewered, grilled and plated with charred pineapple, yuzu, a green olive puree, crispy ginger and a pile of some manner of microgreen. Perhaps the pineapple was a little strong. It just didn't feel quite as crisp as the rest of the menu. But it was still undeniably delicious, and I could not have been more appreciative of the fact that the scallops' coral was left intact. That you don't see that more frequently is a source of endless frustration to me, and it did not go unappreciated.

Spiced Pork RibDominic Armato

Our next dish was pork belly tortellini with squash blossoms and summer squash jus. And given the ingredient list, those who read this blog with any regularity won't be the least bit shocked that this was my favorite of the evening, but I assure you, it's not for the reasons you think. The braised pork belly filling was actually rather muted, clearly in a supporting role. The squash blossoms were lovely, to be sure. But what captivated me was the summer squash jus. And part of the reason it captivated me so was that it seems such an unlikely object of my affection. I always think of summer squash as an unexciting throwaway ingredient on a menu -- the stuff that gets sliced and thrown on the plate with your meat, or the boring anchor of a ratatouille. But the jus was just so bold and flavorful and unashamedly Summer Squash that I completely forgot it was a pork dish until midway through. I mean, really... when's the last time summer squash stole the show from pork belly?

Veal Two WaysDominic Armato

There was no muting the smoked pork rib that followed, however, as it was big and meaty and right there in the center of the dish. It was the dish, heavily spiced with a blend I won't begin to try to decipher, hit with crispy garlic and shallots and sitting atop a smear of huitlacoche. This was one of those Trojan horse of refinement kind of dishes, with which you could fool a bar food junkie into getting excited about something that was actually a complex balancing act of flavors. It was a brash, sweet, smoky, dig in kind of dish and my ladylove declared it her favorite of the evening. When some meat and potatoes fanatic (decidedly not my ladylove) says he doesn't go in for that froo-froo stuff, this is the dish you give him a taste of and dare him not to eat the rest.

Peanut Butter ParfaitDominic Armato

And with that, the pendulum swung back to full-on French, providing us with veal two ways. Succulent, silken cheeks were drowning (in a good way) in intensely reduced veal stock, while roasted sweetbreads -- fresh and light and barely registering as offal -- sat atop an assortment of roasted vegetables, mushrooms, and an eggplant puree. It was pure, traditional meaty decadence, beautifully done. Of course, a dish that meaty carries with it a government-mandated cooling-off period, so the next offering (not pictured) was a panna cotta flavored with jasmine and rooibos teas, and topped with toasted rice syrup and candied citrus zest. It was a clean, cool, fresh and delicious transition to the more intense desserts.

Macerated Summer FruitsDominic Armato

The practice of serving two different desserts to a couple is one fraught with peril. On one hand, it's always fun to be able to taste more dishes. On the other hand, if your company pulls the short straw and lands the lame dessert, the temptation to refuse the plate swap can run dangerously high. Thankfully, this was one of those perfect evenings where we both felt that we got the better end of the deal. Which isn't to say I didn't love her dessert, a peanut butter "parfait" that I put that in quotes only because I'm not entirely sure what the peanut butter component -- sandwiched between the two cookies -- was, precisely. It played a little like ice cream, but was unusually airy, light and dry. Peanut butter is so dominant a flavor that I thought it smart of them to dial it back a bit, and the filling wasn't overly strong. The big star, however, was the banana foam, a light but very wet banana modification that I'm having difficulty describing but no difficulty calling fantastic. It was one of those mind-bending "that flavor isn't supposed to feel like THAT" treatments, but handled effectively rather than as a novelty.

And while I dig the heavier desserts, my heart is usually with ones like the one I received, a pile of stunningly beautiful macerated Summer fruits (note -- peeled grape), with yogurt sorbet and peach tea soda. The sorbet may have been completely unsweetened, there more for its gentle sourness and creaminess than anything else, and the soda had some significant effervescence, providing a nice tingly effect on top of its flavor. And just in case we weren't quite ready to let the meal go (I wasn't), we received a small glass of rhubarb and hibiscus tea mousse with yogurt foam to finish.

The word that springs to mind is delightful. It was just an absolutely delightful meal from top to bottom, full of intense flavors, beautiful combinations and little surprises that were handled with such thought and care that they didn't seem the least bit gratuitous. What makes it doubly impressive is that Maws purportedly creates these complex menus daily based on what arrives in his kitchen that morning. A sure hand and keen imagination are guiding this kitchen, and one gets the sense that Maws could rock the fine dining scene if he so desired. But really, there's no reason for that. Seeing the restaurant, tasting his food, reading his writing -- you get the sense that he's exactly where he wants to be. And I hope to be there again very soon, myself.

Craigie on Main
853 Main Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM


I am drooling. Thanks for the amazing review! Now I just have to conjure up a "special occasion" to justify a visit...

I have a weakness for the defensive mechanisms of cephalopods.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have our Skillet Doux t-shirt.

Wonderful, evocative review. I had to Google "scallop coral" as I had never heard that term before. See, I'm not goofing off at work, I'm learning stuff!

I shouldn't be reading this while I'm hungry! That peanut butter parfait...

I love you, Dominic! I hope you excel in every aspect of life!

I always love reading your reviews. I usually never comment on them because I don't feel that I have the culinary knowledge to articulate my dining experience quite like you do. I think I would have preferred the summer fruit dessert as well, if only for the beautiful colors. Wonderful review.

Dom, did you go recently? This is a very early summer menu, IMHO. I can't imagine they have good squash flowers this time of year.

Both your writing and photography are beautiful. The care you take in choosing the right words and how to put them together are a gift for this fan -- you really evoke reactions on intellectual, emotional, and visceral levels. Oops, just drooled on the keyboard . . . .

Anon Man... Right at the end of August, actually. Yeah, I think of squash blossoms as an early summer thing, but there they were.

Dom, I am sitting here experiencing my second day of having a fever of 103. Food is the furthest thing from my mind - no appetite at all. Now I'm starving and would love to experience that meal. Your writing is just amazing. And amen to the coral!

*drools* will be doing the "Chef's Whim" this Sunday. Really looking forward to it. Give me a call if you're free this week!

ok..New England food comment..My husband and I were in Manchester VT last weekend celebrating our anniversary. Lots of great food. Anyway, an element to one dish my husband had was a bleu cheese bread pudding. It was delicious and we thought it would be a wonderful change from regular stuffing on Thanksgiving. I've tried searching on the internet for a recipe. Does anyone have any ideas or have a recipe?

so glad to see you write about this place. i am a recent transplant to boston (well, cambridge) and a loyal reader of your blog -- nice to see two things i like so much come together! i haven't visited nearly enough restaurants in the area yet, but i've been lucky enough to go to craigie twice and it was great both times. hope to read more reviews of local restaurants soon!

I had the 6 course tasting @ Craigie this summer and all I had to say was "meh" Presentation was beautiful, but the only dish that really wowed us was the lamb tasting...and really only the braised belly portion...The scallop was good, but I didn't consider just leaving the roe attached a big deal even though you don't see that very much. All said and done, I've had a better meal @ many places in NYC for less money....I've found myself getting less and less excited about "fancy" places lately in favor of really honest regional food done well and with love...Tell me, what did you have here that you couldn't have had elsewhere in new england at any number of restaurants? Though I am an ex line cook, I could have made any one of these dishes at home...with not much effort....The method was stellar, the flavor...pedestrian. I wasn't dissapointed in the end...but I wasn't blown away like the price tag would have made me expect to be...Just my 2 cents..

"All said and done, I've had a better meal @ many places in NYC for less money."

I've had a better Italian meal at many places in Italy for less money than what I get in the States, but that doesn't preclude me from enjoying some of Italian meals I have here.

What can I say, Ryan? For me, the flavors weren't at all pedestrian. I thought there were a lot of little unconventional touches that I found delightful. And the fact that it was such a consistent menu from top to bottom without any clunkers also said a lot to me. I wasn't blown away, and I don't believe I claimed to be. But it was an exceptionally good meal that I found consistently clever and crisp. For me, that's unusual.

FWIW, if you're singing the praises of little ethnic joints, you're preaching to the choir, here. But I don't think it's any more noble to sing the praises of little ethnic joints while pooh-poohing more conventional "fancy" restaurants any more than it is to swoon over expensive, upscale joints while overlooking the countless strip mall gems that never get any attention. Why can't both be enjoyed for what they are?

Just visited Craigie on June 3rd - seems to have slipped a bit since your visit and some flavors definitely did not wow. Great review though, and enjoying your Phoenix posts as I'll be visiting in September for a job interview. Cheers.

James Beard hangover, maybe? Too bad.

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