Garden at the Cellar is having an identity crisis.  The food is original, delicious, and well-presented – thanks to Will Gilson who was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award.  Unfortunately, the atmosphere and service are part airport bar and grill, part college town watering hole.  That is to say, the only decoration is an electronic beer sign and the service, though friendly, is inattentive and absent-minded. It feels as though an excellent chef was just plopped into a nondescript local bar and the two haven’t totally adjusted to each other yet. Though there were several employees milling about, and only 6 diners in the restaurant when we arrived at 5:30pm, it took them a few minutes to acknowledge our conspicuous presence and ask if we wanted dinner.  We did, and we were told we could choose any table.

The menu at Garden at the Cellar is enticing: chickpea fries and pork belly and foie gras with donuts!  The only disappointment was the wine list.  It was very reasonably priced, but also very limited in selection.  There were fewer than 20 wines, none of which were particularly interesting, to choose from, which was surprising since the name of the restaurant is derived from The Cellar, the wine store it is connected to.  The variety is irrelevant though if you order wine and it never comes, which is what happened to us.  We ordered the cheapest bottle on the list ($24), a Primitivo, after quite a bit of discussion and thought.  But our waitress never brought it.  She did remember it about 3/4 into the meal but, at that point, we didn’t want it. Carlo did get the cocktail he ordered, a basil lemon drop.  It tasted metallic and took a long time to arrive because, our waitress informed us in a very friendly way, they couldn’t find the simple sugar.

Onto the food.  We decided to get two small plates, four appetizers, and to share an entree because the former two lists just looked so good.  For small plates, we got chickpea fries with lemon zest and parmesan and other various toppings I can’t quite remember.  Wow, they were delicious.  Chickpea flour is really underused.  A beautiful golden color, creamy, unique, best dish of the night.  We also got White Bean Puree, which was very good, but not as original.

White Bean Puree and Chickpea Fries

White Bean Puree and Chickpea Fries

We each ordered two appetizers, with the hope that they would come out two at a time.  We should have said that, and we didn’t, and they all came out at once, and it was annoying.  If you’re in a bar and your buffalo wings come out with your burger, who really cares? But if you’re in a place that serves interesting, delicious food, then having to shovel it all in before it gets cold really undermines the chef’s efforts. We ordered Cod Fritters with chives, remoulade and citrus, Handmade Burratta with spiced date purée, Za’atar, lemon oil, Seared Foie Gras & Doughnuts with various forms of rhubarb, and Pork Belly with spicy beans. The cod fritters tasted fresh and were hot and crispy on the outside and the seared foie gras and rhubarb and donut combination was original and delicious–tart, sweet, and fatty all at once.  The Burrata was a little too sweet and though the pork belly was great, the beans were so spicy that they contrasted in a weird way with the rest of the sweet-ish food.  But overall, we were impressed.

Housemade Burrata from Somerville

Burratta from Somerville

Pork Belly

Pork Belly

Cod Fritters

Cod Fritters

Foie Gras, Donuts, Rhubarb

Foie Gras, Donuts, Rhubarb

And finally, we split the Pork Weiner Schnitzel with poached egg and artichokes and lima beans.  Our shared entree was just as good as the appetizers.  Deliciously well-seasoned schnitzel, though the artichokes and lima beans were a little salty as was the sauce they were sitting in.  And our poached egg came out in a bowl after we were half-way through the dish because someone had forgotten to put it on the plate.  We would not have remembered this had they not brought it out, but they did, and it just reminded us of their sloppy service.

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So despite the strange ambiance, the meal was great.  Though again, we were in a restaurant that does not take reservations and thus does not offer dessert.  I will also point out that we had arrived at the door of the restaurant, consumed a cocktail and seven different plates of food, paid and left the restaurant, in an astounding 58 minutes.  There will be no lingering in Garden at the Cellar, they want you out of there ASAP, yet another thing that undercuts the quality of the food.  The Garden’s only saving grace was that they give diners a little bit of chocolate at the end of the meal.  Enough to not make me hate them, but certainly not enough to satiate one’s need for dessert.

So at this point, it was 6:28pm and we decided to set out for Sweet, a cupcake bakery in the Back Bay that we had heard has phenomenal cupcakes.  Being a lover of the bus, I thought this was a great opportunity to hop on the #1 that heads straight down Mass. Ave.  We walked over to the stop in Central Square and began patiently waiting for the bus.  Which didn’t come.  And the crowd got thicker and thicker.  I do recommend the Central Square bus stop if you’re looking for a bit of post-dinner theater on a Saturday night.  After a 15 minute wait and the third time a seemingly drunk man who kept engaging me in conversation about his best friend’s girl yelled angrily at me to stop looking at him with my “deer eyes” we decided to walk into Boston, which is really not that far.

It wasn’t worth the walk.  We paid $7 for two semi-dry overly frosted, though pretty, cupcakes.  The place is also trying too hard to be cool.  It’s all white and they have a big flat screen that was playing American in Paris.  Odd.  To be fair, we got there at the end of the evening and they were out of nearly every kind of cupcake they have, so maybe there are better options.  We got the dark chocolate with chocolate frosting and the vanilla with chocolate frosting.  Just not worth it; better value for your money with Duncan Hines.

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I was very much looking forward to our meal at Craigie on Main last weekend. I have a weakness for all things pork, and I have come to know Craigie as an institution cut from that same mold. What incarnation of piggy delights would be on the menu this time around? Trotter? Cracklins? Jowel? Definitely some sort of belly. Will it be confit? Braised? Maybe it will be something I’ve never heard of before! Well, imagine my distress and disappointment when I opened the menu to see (gasp) one measly little pork option on the menu. A trio of charcuterie (boudin noir appeared on the menu as well, but not as the main component of the dish). I got it, of course, but I was none too pleased with my lack of options. It was a Sunday night, sure, but if you’re going to have a pig as the emblem of your restaurant then make sure it’s well-represented on the menu. I mean, I understand the whole “we print the menu at 5:09” thing, and you dare not throw some piggy parts in the freezer to ensure strong supply, but tell you what: print the menu two weeks before and make sure there’s a damn pig on it.  Feeling good about my local eating habits isn’t going to make up for the lack of pig in my mouth. F.

homemade rabbit sausage, boudin noir, cock's combs, mushroom, farm egg

homemade rabbit sausage, boudin noir, cock's combs, mushroom, farm egg

Tempura fried dayboat cod cheeks w/ pickled peppers and squid ink anchoiade

Tempura fried dayboat cod cheeks w/ pickled peppers and squid ink anchoiade

These two dishes were my favorites of the night. A farm fresh egg will make virtually anything taste good in my opinion, but this light stew of sausage, boudin noir, cock’s combs and mushrooms  was the perfect compliment. The dish could have used a bit more in terms of different textures as everything was on the soft side, but the taste was money. The cod cheeks were crispy without being greasy and the squid ink had some serious depth of flavor. Other appetizers at the table included the Grilled Spanish Octopus which got rave reviews from the Globe, but was by far the worst dish of the night. This octopus did not taste grilled as it was neither chewy nor charred. It was completely mushy which, characteristic of octopus that was boiled too long for its own good, and came in a far too salty chorizo sauce.

side of bone marrow

side of bone marrow

side of roasted potatoes

side of roasted potatoes

I love restaurants that have tasty side dishes. It’s like a little bonus when I look at the menu –  a nice addition to the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert sections. These were both solid versions of marrow and potatoes. Though I don’t know how I feel about all that marrow without any accompaniments. It’s the type of dish that needs a little something with it to really get me going.

Hangar steak w/ bone marrow, beef tongue, walnut foie gras puree

Hangar steak w/ bone marrow, beef tongue, walnut foie gras puree

crispy yelow corn polenta w/ winter vegetables, forest mushrooms, carrot jus

crispy yelow corn polenta w/ winter vegetables, forest mushrooms, carrot jus

I had the hangar steak and Liz had the polenta. The steak was well-cooked but I really got the dish because of the walnut foie gras puree, and it didn’t totally deliver on my expectations. It was a bit bland relative to the other flavors on the plate, like the tongue. Liz liked her polenta, particularly the flavor of cinnamon in the carrot jus.

gingerbread pain perdu w/quince ginger ice cream, cranberries

gingerbread pain perdu w/quince ginger ice cream, cranberries

The pain perdu for dessert tasted very good, but I wish it was a bit more interesting. The white corn grits with dried fruit compote were a mushy mess that resembled a hot breakfast dish more than a dessert. Liz actually ordered something else and was brought the grits by mistake. I’m sure had we said something about it they would have acted swiftly and courteously to correct the problem, but at that point we didn’t particularly care.
Over all the meal was good, but by no means the best meal I’ve had at a Craigie establishment. I hope it’s not an indication of the new location. I don’t think it is. And for the love of god, Craigie on Main, take a cue from the many pigs you have adorning the dining room and put some mother loving pork on the menu.
white corn grits w/ dried fruit and cinnamon ice cream

white corn grits w/ dried fruit and cinnamon ice cream

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Liz convinced me and a friend of hers to try Rendezvous last night before a concert in Central Square. It was convenient to where we were going and someone told her it was good. I don’t totally regret it…

We have seen and heard some good things about Rendezvous recently, particularly in Gourmet and Boston Magazine, but for some reason I just could not get myself excited to go, and the menu didn’t help. Of the appetizers the gnocchi and the chicken livers looked good, but nothing else stood out. Of the entrees, the duck and the meatballs, I suppose – but restaurant meatballs? What was I thinking? We started with a charcuterie plate that was actually quite good. A chicken liver pate, some housemade lardo, and a pork and veal terrine. For appetizers I was forced into getting the scallops, since Liz wanted the chicken livers, and then the gnocchi as a main course. The sauce for my scallops had “Moroccan spices”. Apparently, Moroccans go wild for tons of cumin. After scraping that off, the scallop tasted fine. Liz’s chicken livers were overcooked – they had turned the tender and fatty texture of a well-cooked liver into the grainy and mealy texture of an icky one.Things didn’t get much better with the entrees. The meatballs were served over toasted orecchiette, kale, and piave cheese. The toasted orecchiette were nice – I enjoyed the contrast between the chewiness of the pasta and the crispiness of the crust. It’s too bad they were served with totally lame meatballs. There was just nothing interesting to these balls of ground meat. The only seasoning I could detect was garlic – and poorly chopped garlic at that. I bit into at least 3 significant chunks, and I was not the only one to suffer the consequences. Let’s just say that Liz wasn’t giving me much affection for the 24 hour period following our meal. Liz’s gnocchi were the real train wreck though. They were homemade, so I guess you have to applaud the effort, but they were very mushy and contributing to the mushiness was the fact that they were served in essentially a soup of oily mushroom-water. The gnocchi were submerged in liquid, which is something I have never seen before and don’t recommend. I’m fairly sure that if they sat in that broth for a little while longer they would have dissolved into a potato porridge. The dessert we had was excellent – a lemon-buttermilk pudding with huckleberry sauce. Definitely try it. My overall impression of Rendezvous was negative, but I think we ordered poorly. The overcooked liver was their mistake, the gnocchi and the meatballs ours. It’s just hard to make these well, and my expectations should have been low. I’m confident that sticking to more traditional bistro items like duck and fish would have been the better call and the more satisfying meal.

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