Dinner at Garden at the Cellar.

If there is something that I am guilty of, it’s falling into a rut.  Whether that means always ordering the same (or similar) item at a restaurant or even only wanting to go to a small handful of places over and over, I tend to plummet head over heels and bum over bosom into a drab old routine.  Luckily I live with someone who’s been known on more than one occasion to grab me by the lapels and drop me out of my comfort zone.  Our dinner at Garden at the Cellar was a perfect example of that, since it’s a place we’ve been meaning to try for a while; left to my own devices, I probably would have put it off indefinitely…  and I would have missed out on some really fabulous food.

As usual, Keith and I ordered far too much food, opting to select a trio of starters and sides to get our appetites going.  We immediately agreed upon the rosemary-truffle fries ($5.00), which shouldn’t come as a shock since I adore potatoes in all forms and pretty much revere the fry.  These were everything a girl looks for in a pile of fries, though I will say that I know from years of experience that a garlic-mayo dip makes every potato stick that much better.

The second appetizer we chose was the burrata with speck, and arugula ($11.00), since cheese has a gravitational pull I am incapable of resisting.  In this case, as much as I hate to admit it, I should have put up more of a fight as this was a poor choice.  The burrata was appropriately buttery and mild, but overall this plate leaned towards the underwhelming.

The last of our trio was by far the best: chicken and thyme croquettes with a smoked paprika aïoli sauce that may have just been the brightest shade orange I’ve seen in a long time ($8.00).  Our bowl held three croquettes each the size of a golf ball, and you know what?  It wasn’t enough.  I wanted more.  I would have canceled my dinner order and gladly eaten another troika of breadcrumb-rolled globes.  Each bite of ground chicken, thyme and cheese was so deeply and richly flavored that I craved another taste even as I chewed.

Garden at the Cellar describes itself as a gastropub; for this reason, I decided to stick as much as possible to the bar menu when it came time to choose my entrée which is why I kept it simple with the restaurant’s “Cellar Burger” ($10.00).  Shaped with locally-raised and grass-fed beef, it was thoroughly succulent — though I wish it had been cooked to medium-rare, as opposed to medium-well.  I had asked to swap out the accompanying fries with house-made tater tots, which were by far the stand-out of the dish.  Soft, fluffy and encased in a crispy shell, these were the epitome of comfort.

In contrast to the warm and fuzzies I felt from the food, I got the exact opposite sensation from both the décor and the waitstaff.  Aesthetically, Garden at the Cellar’s space is very modern — from a 1980s perspective.  It is not a cozy interior at all, and on top of that, the waitstaff was flat-out indifferent to our presence at the bar.  Only when Keith and I began raving about our food did the hostess make a perfunctory inquiry about how we were enjoying our meal.  Before that: nothing.  Afterwards: even less.

In the end, how important is service?  I don’t want to be coddled, but neither do I want to be neglected.  What I truly desire is a series of stunning dishes delivered politely to my table.  Were we insulted by the staff?  Of course not.  Was our food at the proper temperature?  Without question.  At the same time, did we spend a lot of money?  No… but should a diner have to pay No. 9 prices in order to be the recipient of fine service?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, since they address something far greater than my food at Garden at the Cellar, which — with the exception of the burrata — was startlingly luscious.  If anyone has some thoughts on the service matter, I’m curious to hear them.

Garden at the Cellar
991 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

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Dinner at No. 9 Park.

For a while now, Keith and I had been tossing around restaurant ideas, trying to decide where we wanted to go to celebrate our anniversary.  The list was pretty short, and ultimately we chose Barbara Lynch‘s No. 9 Park.  I remember when I first moved to Boston years and years ago, I would walk past the Park Street brownstone and think about how cozy the diners looked, framed in the restaurant’s warmly-lit windows.

As we walked across the Common, Keith and I chatted about the meal ahead.  Did we want to order à la carte?  Should we try the $65.00 three-course prix-fixe?  Or maybe the seven-course tasting menu for $96.00?  Keith and I both love tasting menus — there’s something to be said about me, the Indecisive Wonder, not having to make any choices whatsoever as to what I want to eat.  And, of course, there’s also the thrill of seeing what exactly a kitchen is capable of, so we determined the tasting was the way to go that night.

Our first course was a lobster gelée, which was served alongside a dollop of paddlefish roe and a combination of avocado and cucumber that had been minced incredibly finely.  The gelée was so enjoyable and had a lovely silken texture, but what I liked best was the contrast of the roe with the avocado and cucumber.  The salty globules offered just the teeniest bit of resistance against the teeth, unlike the miniscule crunchy green squares.  All in all, it was a very subtle and refined introductory plate.

Next up was a dish of Chilean turbot with celeriac,  wax beans and a summer truffle.  Like the gelée before it, this course was very elegant; I found the celeriac in particular to be a memorable ingredient, as it added a really lovely freshness to the entire plate.  Actually, as I was slicing into the fish — which was cooked absolutely perfectly, I should add — I suddenly thought to myself, This is a very feminine dish.  It was simply so delicate and light, that I can’t think of a better word to describe the overall effect.

Earlier in the month I had gotten into a dispute of sorts with a friend who insisted the menu at No. 9 was Italian; I said that No. 9 leaned more towards the French, though I was willing to concede that its cuisine could be described at Mediterranean — which could go so far as to include Italy.  Our third course would definitely fall under the Italian and/or Mediterranean category:  housemade rigatoni  in an  heirloom tomato sauce with a scorched Japanese eggplant and ricotta salata.  This sauce was absolutely delicious; it had a surprising depth and — at the risk of sounding like the fortune teller on the Japanese version of Iron Chef — it tasted like summer.  Actually, it tasted like the most delicious tomato at the height of summer, and was at once comforting and delicious.

Keith and I both chose to get an additional course, which was served midway through the meal.  As there were two options we got both, agreeing to swap plates after we had the chance to sample each one.  This is something Keith and I rarely do; we generally order our own dishes, occasionally tasting the other’s, but it is really uncommon for us to trade altogether like some other dining couples do.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone to read that I was most excited about the artisan foie gras plate.  It was paired with a portion of pommes Maxine, which basically are thinly sliced golden potatoes coated in butter and then baked.  Simple as they sound, they are infinitely more satisfying than words can convey.

If the potatoes were hard to describe, think of the trouble I’m having with the foie.  Yes, it was rich; yes, it was decadent.  The foie was something else as well — it was beautifully textured, and had a mouthfeel so creamy that each piece practically melted on the tongue.  Truly: imagine a soft ice cube, if that’s possible, slowly turning to liquid in your mouth.  That’s the best job I can do in telling you about this amazing foie.

The other optional course, which Keith in particular was very interested in trying, was the prune-stuffed gnocchi.  The gnocchi came with two luscious little bite of foie, which of course was the highlight of the plate for me. The gnocchi themselves weren’t much to my liking; I thought the prunes were too much on the sweet side, and after half a gnocchi, I was ready to swap plates with Keith.  And, just so you know that I’m not too too biased towards the foie, even Keith agreed the prune aspect of the plate was too intensely flavored.

Next was the fifth course, as I am counting the gnocchi and foie count as one together.  The fifth dish threw the No. 9 cuisine debate straight out the window.  We were presented with a plate of crispy pork belly, baby bok choi and kimchi; our server then poured a gorgeous bacon consommé over everything.  Though this dish may sound odd when placed alongside its predeccesors, this pork was just as flavorful.  It was lush and tender, with a skin that crunched like hard candy under my teeth.  The kimchi was of the perfect heat, even for someone like me who admittedly is a wimp when it comes to such things.  Wimp or no, this was flawless.

I wish I could use the word flawless or a synonym to describe our final savory course, but I know that would be a lie.  It was a braised beef brisket with cranberry beans, and I was barely able to eat any of it.  The brisket sat atop a piece or ribeye, and the entire column of meat was saturated with a thick sauce — the flavor of which was too intensely sweet for me to eat.  Come to think of it, I don’t know if it was sweet exactly; in fact, I believe it would be more accurate to describe it as sickly-sweet.  The meat was wonderfully tender, but regardless of this, I was hard-pressed to get more than a few bites in me.  I felt terribly guilty; after all, no one likes to pay any amount of money for an unsatisfactory dish.  I should say that I loved the cranberry beans, which is absolutely true, but my affection for them did not make up for my feelings towards the brisket and ribeye in any way.

In all honesty, I was a bit wary of our first dessert, a perspective I established solely on the description: printed in the menu:  “huckleberry soup — lemon meringue, huckleberry confit.”  (I don’t know the reason why so many restaurants describe their courses like this — the dish’s name, followed by two-to-four components.  It seems pretentious.)  I’ve had a few fruit-based soups lately, and they all seem to be much better in theory than in practice.  I was intruigued by the huckleberries though; until this meal, my only experience with them have been cartoon-based: Huckleberry Hound and Huckleberry Pie.

This was better.

Before I begin discussing the soup, let me first discuss its appearance: gorgeous.  Honestly, could a lovelier claret color exist?  I don’t think so, especially not one that could possibly taste as rich as this.  The huckleberries have a sweetness to them not unlike that of a perfectly-ripe blueberry, though I would say the huckleberry flavor has little to no tartness.  The lemon meringues, which look like little mini marshmallows, complimented the berries fantastically, adding the tiniest bit of acid to the dessert.  I would have loved a few dozen more of them.

Our last dessert, and our final course, was a chocolate and caramel mousse, which was served with an Italian cookie called lingue de gatto, or cat’s tongue.  Our server charmingly shrugged when we raised our eyebrows at the name.

“I have no idea why it’s called that,” he said sheepishly.

Etymology nonwithstanding, the cookie was unremarkable.  As was the mousse, which I found utterly disappointing.  (The same could be said for the caramel, which I promptly scooped off of my plate and onto Keith’s, but that might just be because I’ve never really liked caramel.)  What was quite nice, however, was the single spoonful of sorbet, which in a burst not unlike sunshine concentrated the best flavors of sweet grapefruit.  If the plate had consisted solely of that, I would have been beyond pleased.

As we walked back across the Common, I tried to pinpoint how I felt about the night.  Our cocktails were wonderful, the service was lovely, and the décor was stylish — though more modern than what I expected, and comprised of nothing so noteworthy as to be distinctive.  The food, with the exception of the brisket, had all been executed perfectly; in fact, I think I used the exact word (or variations of, or synonyms) several times as descriptors.  So why was I literally dragging my feet along the pathways, struggling to put a metaphorical finger on my opinion?  I finally realized that my meal had been missing something: excitement.  Not once throughout the evening did I place a forkful into my mouth and think, This is really something.  Certainly, I thought the food was flavorful and at times delicious, but never did I find it innovative or even evocative.  It was solidly-cooked, perfect food…  that was just a little boring.

No. 9 Park
9 Park Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108

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