Thursday, January 8, 2009
A Return to Chez Henri
Porter Square in Cambridge is charming in so many ways. It is a gorgeous place to walk with beautiful Victorians, narrow streets and, for children, wonderful parks to play in. The stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard Square and Porter Square offers an amazing range of food feasts ranging from Korean at Seoul Food (the owners are as kind and charming as the food is delicious) to Ethiopian at Addis Red Sea, as well as Indian, Mexican, American and Chinese. (One of my favorite snacks was the chicken wontons with a vinegary cabbage slaw from the ridiculously named "Wok and Roll.") The Japanese mini-mall at the old Sears building has decent sushi, flavorful udon, donburi bowls and hearty curry dishes, too.
But during the years I lived in Cambridge, Chez Henri was a restaurant I could count on for consistently having good food, a nice atmosphere and flavor combinations that took it beyond standard bistro fair. So, after a babysitting exchange was set in place with a friend (I highly recommend this) and a $50.00 gift certificate in hand (part of a donation to NPR/WBUR), FoodieDaddy and I set out for Chez Henri.
I would love to report that it was as good as I remembered...And, in fact, in some ways it was quite nice. The familiarity of the decor, which hadn't changed much in the last 5 years, was comforting. And the fact that some of the dishes were simply twists on what I remembered made it easier to order and have confidence that the food would be good.
I had the ceviche and it was as layered with flavors as I had hoped (and craved-they really make a nice ceviche). This time it consisted of red snapper, octopus and shrimp mixed with lime and slivers of mango. It was tart and sweet with the mango balancing the acid of the citrus. The shrimp were "cooked" perfectly and the snapper was good, though a bit mushy. It was served with plantain chips which were cold and were calling out for some spice, or at least salt.
My husband's starter was a much greater success. It was a celery root and salisfy cream soup, served with a white truffle "crema" and shimenji mushrooms. It was warm, comforting, flavorful and perfect for a very cold night. The truffle added an earthy flavor to the dish and the celery hearts on top made the soup interesting in taste and aesthetics.
I chose an odd dish with my ceviche. Often I order multiple appetizers preferring little tastes to a main dish. And yet I ordered fois gras despite my political objections (I won't eat veal and was a long-time vegetarian) nor the fact that I really don't love it. In fact, this will be the last time I order it. The menu description was just so intriguing: "Hudson Valley Fois Gras, petit plantain Belgian waffle and pink peppercorn maple syrup." The fois gras was rich and did go well with the sweetness of the syrup. But I never got beyond the discomfort of eating the fois gras, nor the oddness of having breakfast with liver...Overall the sweetness dominated the dish.
My husband's main dish was more of a success. It consisted of braised beef short ribs and a hanger steak served with a red wine reduction and my favorite dish of the evening-a heavenly manchego root vegetable gratin. I could have eaten that alone. And in many ways it did represent the best of the restaurant: layers of parsnip and turnip providing a sweetness that melted into the fruity and very creamy cheese. The steak was cooked well, though I found the sauce to be a bit salty. My husband loved the ribs.
There were a few disappointments. I wasn't a fan of the bread, the dessert or the service. I recognize that I may be picky here, but the bread was cold (barely room temperature) and just seemed to be tossed into a basket. It was fine but it was very dense and heavy. Perhaps, though, it was the fact that even how it was put on the table seemed to be an afterthought. And the reality is that overall, although the hostess was certainly helpful and kind (giving us advice on parking, for example), even with a half-empty restaurant, I kept feeling as though our questions were bothering the waiter. For example, when my husband asked about the steak, the waiter said, "Well, it is steak. What would you like to know?" Snarky with a smile is one thing. But when we are paying decent money for a meal, it would be nice to have some warmth with our service.
Honestly, he was a bit more relaxed by dessert, but unfortunately that is where the meal went flat. The "banana cream tart in a macadamia crust with dark chocolate and coconut" was also presented nicely (the top picture) but it was served cold. While I recognize that a cream tart needs to be kept cool, a cold pudding and tart is just not good. However, it didn't help the fact that the crust was almost tasteless. I barely tasted macadamia. Here salt would have helped bring out the flavor tremendously. Finally, I never found the dark chocolate. It wasn't a bad dessert...it just wasn't very good. ("Not worth the calories," as my mother would say.)
So...I think this will be my last visit. While it was decent, there are too many other great new finds that I am hoping to try out (Garden at the Cellar, Ten Tables and Hungry Mother, e.g.) and too few nights that we can afford a babysitter!