For the second year in a row, Keith and I ended up at Cambridge’s T.W. Food for my birthday dinner. When the restaurant opened in 2007, it seemed to be on all of the local — and some national — “Don’t Miss” lists, making it something of a culinary darling. It was the descriptions of Chef Tim Wiechmann’s menu that compelled me to make it my birthday stop last year, and it was the memory of that meal that made me want to repeat the experience.
Like last year, Keith and I opted to do the seven course grand tasting ($69.00) — which in a sense is misleading, as the meal is bookended with extra desserts on one side and an amuse bouche on the other. (For the record, the tasting is also offered with a wine pairing; that meal is an additional $39.00.)
We received two different amuses: the first was a light egg salad on a circle of toasted brioche, the second was a turnip-ginger mousse on another circle; this one was of puff pastry. Normally, I favor anything involving a puff pastry; while I will say the mousse was silky in texture and subtle in flavor, the egg salad was so awesomely light that I actually found myself preferring it.
Before our tasting began, we were presented with the one other item that we had ordered: T.W. Food’s oyster shooter ($3.00 each). Last year, the shooter was a part of the tasting, and Keith can tell you how many often I’ve spoken of its cool brininess.
“Is oceany a word?” I would ask.
And later: “What about sea-licious?”
This time around, the shooters came in flavored essences — beet, fennel or cucumber. Keith choose the fennel while I opted for the beet, which was not only intensely flavored of beet but also — well, is oceany a word?
We were never able to resolve the issue, since our tasting then officially began with a smoked foie gras crème brûlée. It was served alongside a cross-hatch of apples and a round of toast, and while it was incredibly creamy, I’ve never liked crème brûlée; even the foie’s richness couldn’t compete with the caramelized top. I will say that the sugary top was perfectly crisp and had a pleasant snap to it, and that the foie’s texture was remarkably airy and almost like a custard but that is all. My bias against crème brûlée prevents me from saying that I truly liked this demitasse of a starter, no matter how pretty it was or how well the crisply sweet apples complemented the foie.
The second course of the tasting was another story altogether. I loved every aspect of this frothy cauliflower
soup. Spiced with vanilla, curried gnocchi hid at the bottom of the mug, sidling onto my spoon at the very last minute to surprise me with their wholly unexpected zest. The broth was at once creamy and light, and tasted almost intoxicatingly of cauliflower — rich, milky and utterly delicious. What was interesting was the mixture of textures here: breezy cauliflower foam, atop lush cauliflower-vanilla soup, in which pillowy gnocchi swam. It was absolutely lovely, and I had to hide my spoon from myself when I was done, since I was tempted to dip it into Keith’s mug.
The third course was one I was looking forward to very much, from the moment I read its description on the menu: “German spätzle, a special ‘Schwabish’ recipe: bacon, onion, parsley and Emmenthaler cheese.” I love spätzle — well, I love noodles and those made with egg have a very warm place reserved in my heart — and I am one of those people who think that the addition of bacon to any recipe is a smart move, so I attacked this plate knowing that it was almost impossible for me to be disappointed. That said, I think even if I hadn’t been already leaning towards affection, there would have been no chance of me not adoring this dish. After all, what’s not love about crunchy, salty bacon paired with soft, chewy noodles and the tang of melty cheese?
I was a bit anxious about this next dish of Scottish salmon, but not because I get squeamish around fish. In fact, I love most seafood, and a pan-seared fillet with wild mushrooms sounded particularly appetizing. What was getting me nervous, however, was our server described as “eggplant caviar.” Here’s the thing: I hate eggplant. (I know it’s not cool to hate it, but the truth’s the truth.) At first I took the childish route, performing surgery on my plate in order to transport as much salmon and mushroom to my mouth as little contact with the eggplant as possible. Don’t worry, I quickly realized that this was utterly silly and that a little but of aubergine wasn’t going to kill me. In fact, it was quite good… for eggplant.
Our last of the main courses was game-centric: venison two ways. The first was the cured and roasted leg meat, and the second was with braised and packaged in pasta. While it should be noted that everything on the plate was delicious (especially the smeared dollop of turnip purée and the tender wedges of pear), I found this dish to be exceedingly heavy. Had the grand tasting been six courses, with the venison as the final savory plate, that would have been one thing, but to face it after the not-so-light salmon and the filling spätzle… I thought it was a bit of a misstep on the planning stage of things.
Stage one of our dessert was a small cheese plate featuring Noble Cheddar from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my beloved Comté from Jura, France. As with the salmon earlier in the evening, I had some hesitation when approaching this dish. This time, however, it was because of the cheddar. I am a great aficionado of cheese, but I am most certainly on the fence when it comes to cheddars. In fact, of all the different varieties that I’ve had, I can only think of three that I’ve liked: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Montgomery’s and Keen’s. I’m sad to say that the Noble didn’t make my list, though my wedge did find itself on Keith’s plate.
The final course of the grand tasting was one that I was quite curious about: pears suspended in a chamomile tea gelée with a sweet cream panna cotta and a pumpkin coulis. I don’t know if it’s trendy to confess this, but here I go regardless — I really enjoy a nice gelée. I like its slippery texture on the tongue, and I like its concentration of flavor. This gelée satisfied me immensely, as did the panna cotta, which was perfectly balanced between firm and satiny. The one aspect that I found myself spooning away from, however, was the pumpkin coulis. Flavored with cinnamon, it was so overwhelming that a few smears on my spoon were more than enough for me to get a taste; after he had finished his, I swapped my goblet with Keith, a fan of cinnamon.
Immediately before we were presented with the bill, we were given some extra desserts to speed us home. My absolute favorite was a sweet that tap-danced the line dividing cookie from cake; made of almond flour, it was so delicate and so subtle that I found myself chewing more and more slowly so that I could enjoy it even more. The second-place finish goes to the golden brown tuille, whose sticky crunch was impossibly fun. In the absolute dead last position were the sugar-dusted Concord grape jellies; after one bit I forfeited my candy to Keith. I don’t know what it is about grape (and cherry, and raspberry) but I infinitely prefer the authentic fruit to a reproduction, or even a boiled down version of its essence. I don’t know why this is, especially as I’ve no problems with candified versions of apple, peach and watermelon; grape, for whatever reason, is at the top of my can’t-stand-it list.
Now, first things first: I love T.W. Food. I love the casual-yet-refined ambiance, I love the eclectic mix of furnishings, I love the fact that our server remembered us from last year, and I of course love the practically worshipful attention-to-detail Chef Wiechmann and his team possess. What I don’t love is that I’ve come to realize that there are so many foods and flavors that I dislike: crème brûlée, eggplant, most Cheddars, cinammon and concentrated grape. Did my food preferences cause me to enjoy my meal any less? Of course not; I just find myself wondering what else there is out there that I find unpalatable, and hoping they’re not on the menu next year.
377 Walden Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138