The Boston Phoenix
January 20 - 27, 2000

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A new bistro for a quiet Cambridge neighborhood

by Stephen Heuser

5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge
(617) 497-5511
Open Tues-Thurs, 5-10 p.m., and Fri and Sat, 5-11 p.m.
AE, DC, Disc, MC, Visa
Beer and wine
No smoking
Down several steps from sidewalk
Butterfish isn't quite in Harvard Square, and it isn't quite anywhere else, either. In this quiet neighborhood between Concord and Brattle Streets, it is the only restaurant for half a mile, unless you count the dining room at the Sheraton Commander. Its below-street-level space on Craigie Circle is one of those spots that pretty much demand a cozy little bistro; the last occupant was called Café Celador (cellar door, get it?), and the new place has a cute name, a Chic Simple concept ("An American Bistro"), and a surprisingly aggressive-looking blue fish for a logo.

The chef here, Christopher Bussell, has worked at a number of restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. I tasted his cooking when he was the chef at Hibernia, and his style is still recognizable: vaguely fusion-y bistro food -- the kind of dishes with a piece of grilled meat, some cardamom in the crust, a big pile of braised greens, and a lot of liquid on the bottom of the plate.

You walk down a half-flight of stairs from the street into a little coatroom, through a paned white door with playful handles suggestive of dolphins, and into an intimate two-room space. The colors are surprisingly cool: white and cornflower blue, with a stripe of lavender around the molding. Most of the other diners seemed to be on the older side -- the middle-aged no-makeup Cambridge crowd.

A butterfish is a smallish, oily fish caught off the Cape. In-season, it can be pan-fried like smelt. Off-season, it's used for bait. I'm guessing the restaurant took the name because it suggests something small, New Englandy, and unpretentious. It certainly isn't because there's butterfish on the menu -- in fact, the restaurant's early press releases bend over backward to point out that this is not a seafood restaurant. There's no more fish on the menu than average: salmon, bass, a raw-tuna appetizer. One tasty bit of fish is a "tower of smoked trout mousse over purple potatoes" ($8), a creation the chef brought over from Hibernia. It's not actually a tower; rather, this is a round layer of fairly plain (if deeply colored) purple-potato chunks under a dense, chilled pâté of smoked trout, topped with four spinach leaves set on edge, like the roof of the Sydney Opera House. It is a very nice dish: smoky, enticing, not too heavy.

Another cute preparation was the baby romaine salad ($8). This was a toss of little red romaine leaves cupped in a "parmesan tuile" -- a small bowl formed of crisped parmesan cheese, with two long lettuce leaves arcing decoratively up like the ears of a fruit bat. The one disappointment was that we didn't find any of the promised white anchovies.

On the slightly heavier side, two cold-weather appetizers worked fairly well. Warm goat-cheese bruschetta ($8) was a tasty arrangement of toasted bread slices and dollops of chèvre, spiced up with warm strips of roasted red and yellow peppers that hummed with a bit of chili heat. And "ravioli of figs and Hubbardston blue cheese" ($9) was a half-dozen soft-skinned dumplings filled with a pleasant russet-brown paste that didn't taste terribly like blue cheese. The combination, with cream sauce on the plate, spiced walnuts, and a dusting of cinnamon, was comforting and slightly reminiscent of pie, except for the little cubes of red and yellow peppers scattered across the top.

Given the relative success of the appetizers, the entrées at our first dinner left us a little nonplused. One dish, a "black lentil dahl" ($16), had the slightly discombobulated quality you find in curry dishes in non-Indian restaurants. The lentils were a decent enough stew; they came in a straight-sided terra-cotta dish with a pile of long-grain white rice mixed with tart yogurt and a quite fearsome quantity of hot pepper; there was also a bunch of green beans covered with a goopy coconut cream.

Pork loin ($19) was two long slices of pork -- I'm guessing the outer edge of a tenderloin -- seared and draped over a few pork medallions, all underlaid by a loose and slightly grainy polenta soaking in a pool of gravy. There was a vegetable -- a slightly bitter spray of braised broccoli rabe -- and a fancy garnish in the form of sliced wild mushrooms. I like all the ingredients, and it tasted fine, but the whole package had a kind of imprecision that I don't always enjoy at $19 a plate.

I found the duck ($22) much more satisfying. A sliced duck breast curled around a mild white risotto, on top of which lay a "confit leg." Duck is a fatty meat, and this dish made the most of its nice deep taste, even including flavorsome bits of crackling. The leg really wasn't so much a confit (i.e., crispy and preserved) as a nice, moist, braised duck leg. The vegetable portion of the dish -- being a bistro, Butterfish always includes a vegetable -- was a roasted half-artichoke that looked pretty but proved a bit too fibrous to chew completely.

The fish dish we tried was a salmon fillet ($18), the skin seared to a crust on top, accompanied by earthy chard, a jammy wedge of red onion, and a pool of black lentils in fishy broth. The neat touch here was a dollop of "pistou" on the salmon -- you'd recognize it as pesto -- crowned with a glistening cluster of orange salmon eggs.

Desserts, all $8, are straightforward and a bit stylish. Apple crumble is an easy one to get right, and this version was pleasant and huge: chunks of apple with a few cranberries under a cinnamon-laden granola-ish crust, with a scoop of real-vanilla ice cream. There's no ultra-chocolatey dessert, though there is a "chocolate almond vacherin torte," a layered confection of wafers and chocolate cream on a plate festooned with two colors of chocolate sauce, and accessorized with a cute shortbread spoon.

The best dessert we tried was the napoleon of fresh berries, a multilevel construction of cream, three kinds of berries, and pastry. It was surrounded with a pale-yellow champagne sabayon, giving a sense of luxury without real heaviness -- both the sabayon and the pastry wafers were light and airy.

So was the service, unfortunately, at least on our first night. Our server mostly seemed to be attending to someone in the back room, or carrying something past us, and wasn't much help with ordering ("Well, I don't eat pork," was all our server said when we asked about the pork dish). Later, when we asked for our dessert with two forks, we didn't get any forks, so I hopped up and snagged a couple from an empty table nearby. Still, the service was friendly enough, and life was smoother the second night we visited, with a different server. And it's a small enough place that you certainly don't feel neglected -- the chef was hanging out in the dining room both times we ate. I resisted the temptation to ask him where all the butterfish were.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser[a]

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