Sunday, January 25, 2009
Better than Broadway: Craigie on Main, Kitchenside
I will admit that my husband and I watch both Top Chef and Iron Chef. Silly drama, perhaps, but we also get drawn into the idea watching people create dishes and meals in minutes. It is, though, still TV, created by producers (not chefs). So, for me, our recent meal at Craigie on Main was memorable for two reasons: a fantastic meal and a real-life opportunity to observe a restaurant kitchen (and great chef) at work.
I had eaten at the Craigie Street Bistro on 3 other memorable occasions. In fact, I dare to say that Craigie and Salts are the first restaurants that come to my head for anniversary and birthday meals. Craigie on Main opened up in November, ironically across the street from Salts, in Central Square, Cambridge. Given the opportunity to design their own restaurant, chef-owner Tony Maws chose to add a bar area with its own menu, and a set of 4 seats that are directly located against an open kitchen, in addition to the regular dining room. From our vantage point a chef needs to be both humble and confident to be willing to seat customers so close to the action. Or, as Tony Maws put it to us last week, “It is like a dinner party at our house each night.” What can I say? For me, this is as exciting and interesting as it gets. I can see, though, that kitchenside wouldn’t be for every couple. It is hard to sustain a conversation when you are watching chefs prepare each dish in such detail. And, realistically, not everyone wants to see a cook criticized by another chef while they are trying to create perfect dishes....It would be great, though, for a blind date as there is always something distracting to discuss or for couples like us who view this as just great entertainment combined with a wonderful meal. And, you can always have a fabulous meal at Craigie on Main without sitting right at the kitchen level.
The service was great. The meal was great. If there was ever a question about the level of attention to detail of each element on a plate, sitting here at Craigie eliminates it as you watch each item prepared. My incredible sashimi appetizer took a full 4 minutes for one sous-chef to plate. and that doesn’t include prep work before the restaurant opened.
Our meal began with an amuse bouche of trout with a homemade potato chip. It was delicious. Next, my husband got a fabulous bargain. For $38.00 he had a 3 course meal. It started with salad of frisee, watercress, endive with a Banyuls-walnut vinaigrette. It was crisp, fresh and nicely balanced. Next, he had a slow-roasted chicken with a 3 bean ragout and jerusalem-artichoke puree. The chicken was moist and the skin was crisp. It included a delicious dessert (more to come later).
I decided to choose a selection of appetizers. My first dish was just fantastic: A salad of Kona Kampachi Sashimi with avocado, sake-braised iceberg, whitefish roe, oroblanco and shiso. The oroblanco (a type of vinegar) added acidity and balance. The fish was fresh and meltingly soft.
Next, Crispy Fried Maine Smelts with pickled peppers and long beans, and squid ink anchoiade. The smelts, tasting similar to a light white fish, were perfectly fried and salted. The pickled vegetables were almost addictive in their unusual taste. But it was the squid ink that was most surprising-it was sweet and was a great interplay for the salinity of the rest of the dish. As Tony Maws is known for his use of pork and pig, I chose Organic Farro, Boudin Noir and Country Sausage Risotto with Forest Mushrooms, Poached Egg and Shallot puree. It was rich and, for me, almost overwhelming. Truth be told, I really don't eat sausage, so I can't be a fair judge of this. I enjoyed the mushrooms and the egg, but I can't say I will order it again.
We also tried their "duck fat fried potatoes" which were good...but not quite as memorable as I imagined.
Our dessert was pretty perfect. As part of my husband's prix-fixe, you get whatever the chef thinks works in the moment. We had our eyes on this all evening (literally as the dessert station was right in front of us!): Mocha Mille Feuille with homemade graham crackers, cocoa wafer and walnut coulis. What is missing from the picture is the fact that the chocolate mousse was piped onto the crackers seconds before the dish is served so that the crispness of the cracker was preserved. Overall it was rich without being too sweet. The walnut coulis was just delicious. We literally devoured this (is it acceptable to lick a plate at a restaurant?)
But the meal wasn't over. We were served two additional special treats: a duo of panna cotta: one enhanced with lemon peel and the other with jasmine. Both were subtle, creamy and light. Finally, a small demi-tasse of rich, warm hot chocolate enhanced with ancho chili powder and cardamom. Perfect for a night when the snow was pouring down.