Cambridge’s Craigie Street Bistro has been on my list of restaurants to try for quite some time, but only this past weekend was I finally able to make it over for dinner. Keith and I knew we wanted to go on a Sunday night, in order to take advantage of the “Chef’s Whim” tasting menu, which is only available on Sundays and Wednesdays after nine. So at nine-thirty, we met up with Melissa and Kelly and descended the steps into the subterranean space.
There are two options for the Sunday night Chef’s Whim at Craigie Street: the four-course ($39.99) and the six-course ($54.99). As a table, we had to agree upon the same number of courses; we chose to go the six-course route, with Kelly opting for a vegetarian version — something I think a bit unfortunate, considering that Food & Wine recently named Craigie Street as one of their top picks for the “10 Best Restaurants for Carnivores” in the magazine’s 2008 Go List.
The first course we carnivores received was a salad of scallops, a few different varieties of beets and globes of salmon roe tossed in a Dijon and miso vinaigrette. The plate, which I think would be impossible to make any prettier, was dotted with purslane and edible flowers; a coin-sized quail egg rested on top of the salad. Each bite tasted so light and fresh that it’s hard to come up with the proper words to describe it, though “oceany” comes to mind. The brininess of the scallop combined with the spring-like flavor of the Dijon-miso combination was completely refreshing. It was a phenomenal first course and a perfect beginning.
Just when I started to think that no dish could possibly touch that beet-scallop-roe salad, our second course arrived. Another salad, this one was of several different types of tomatoes — all grown locally — sprinkled with shavings of salt-cured foie gras. Now, here is where I must confess to a certain bias: I love the tomato. I don’t care that it’s a fruit rather than a vegetable; all that interests me is that it is delicious. I love them raw, I love them cold, I love them off the vine, I love them in sandwiches à la Harriet M. Welch. I think that, even in spite of this, I would have absolutely adored this salad. I was blown away by the diverse range of flavors present in the different tomatoes; it was more than I could ever imagine, ranging from lushly sweet to pleasantly tart. I believe that’s a chive blossom resting atop the tomato pile; it gave the whole plate a really pleasant oniony-ness that was sharply crisp and very nice.
The lovely tomatoes were followed with a fish dish: cod cheek tempura with a pinenut-peppercress salad and chorizo sauce. While this course was perfectly fine, I really do think it suffered, as it had the misfortune of following two utterly sublime plates. Could cod even aspire to compare itself to a luscious scallop or a sun-ripened tomato? I think not, though I will say that these cheeks certainly were very tender, all but falling apart in the mouth (the cheeks of the cod are thought to be the most succulent part of the animal.) The peppercress, or peppergrass, added a startling bite to the plate that I found very interesting… but it wasn’t enough to put this in the same league as the first two courses.
For our fourth course we were served a soup of white corn drizzled with paprika oil. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the bowl was placed directly before me that I smelled the corn’s deeply sweet scent, which then hit me so fast and so strong that it was positively overwhelming. For a moment, it was almost as if I was seeing beige — in a good way. This soup’s rich, velvety texture was so decadent that, while Keith and Kelly discussed I-don’t-know-what, Melissa and I volleyed suggestions back and forth as to what would pair well with it.
“Shrimp, grilled,” one of us said.
“Bacon,” the other replied.
And et cetera, until Melissa said thoughtfully, “But you know, it’s so good, it really doesn’t need anything else at all.”
She was (and is) thoroughly correct. This was pure corn essence, the absolute core of corn flavor, and was obscenely, astronomically, gastronomically delicious.
The greatness of the corn soup really should have prepared me for the next course: “pork two ways.” Normally, menu items in quotation marks kind of irritate me, but this dish was so very marvelous that I found it in my heart to forgive the copywriter. (It was also so very marvelous that I forgot to take a picture. Whoops.) The pork duo consisted of luscious morsels of slow-cooked belly and a simply phenomenal Alsatian-style sausage that was — and I hate the overuse of this word but in this instance it is apropos — transcendent. Served over over hakurei turnips, it was without a doubt The Best Sausage Ever. I don’t proclaim to have tasted every sausage in the world, but after eating a nibble of this, I don’t have to. So tender as to soften in the mouth from the tongue’s heat, this must be what all meat dreams of becoming when it grows up.
As I was slowly savoring each bite, I found myself wondering, What is this flavor that I’m tasting? It’s like cumin, but not quite. Again, I turned to Melissa, who volunteered cinnamon or nutmeg, but I wasn’t convinced. Our server solved the mystery for us — turns out we were both right, as the lovely sausage included all three, along with clove, white pepper and French allspice.
Our final course was dessert, but rather than bring us four the same sweet, we were each presented with a different dish, which we were meant to share. While I normally think sharing is a good idea, when it comes to dessert I can be extremely hoardy so I am very much opposed to this idea… particularly since the olive oil and Taza chocolate mousse was placed in front of me. I love chocolate mousse almost as much as I love the tomato, so that’s really saying something. This version was drizzled with a very sweet kumquat syrup, which I could have done without, and pierced with almond pralines, which I could have happily eaten more of.
The four of us picked off each other’s plates, sampling white corn grits with housemade strawberry jam and lemon balm ice cream, a mixed berry crisp with anise hyssop ice cream, and a pair of mint profiteroles drizzled with chocolate and rum sauce (clockwise from the mousse). Of the quartet, my favorite actually was the berry crisp, a surprise since, had I been left to my own devices, I most certainly would have gone for the mousse, with the profiteroles as a close runner-up. The grits-and-jam was a clever combination that I never would have selected normally but enjoyed immensely.
In the end, we dawdled over our desserts and coffee, not wanting to leave the restaurant. Of course we had to, and spent the next twenty minutes finishing up our conversation in the parking lot, where I was promptly bitten by several mosquitoes. I suppose, in a strange way, I can’t blame them — after such an enchanting meal, I probably tasted exquisite.
Craigie Street Bistrot
5 Craigie Circle
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138