The Boston Phoenix
November 11 - 18, 1999

[Food Reviews]

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West Side Lounge

Didn't know Mass Ave had a "west side"? It does now.

by Stephen Heuser

West Side Lounge
1680 Mass Ave, Cambridge
(617) 441-5566
Open for dinner, Sun-Wed, 5-10 p.m.; and Thurs-Sat, 5-11 p.m. Bar open daily till 1 a.m.Closed Sun.
AE, DC, Disc, MC, Visa
Full bar
Smoking at bar and three tables
Sidewalk-level entrance; wheelchair-accessible
Bathroom available
There was something kind of cool about the food at Cena, a light-on-the-meat bistro that lasted a couple years in the East Fenway. The chef there was Tom Tenuta, an affable guy, a product of all the hep kitchens, and a softie for sustainable harvests and vegetarian-friendly menus. The old neighborhood couldn't quite keep a bistro going, even such a well-intentioned one, and it's no great surprise that Tenuta's ended up in Cambridge, opening the West Side Lounge, a stylish little place in the quickly yupscaling neighborhood between Harvard and Porter Squares.

The partners in this three-week-old venture are Charlie Christopher and Holly Heslop, owners of the successful nearby bars Christopher's and Cambridge Common. (The other partner here is Jim Hoben, one of the most distinctive-looking humans in the restaurant business; he's the one gliding quietly between kitchen and bar with the futuristic bald head and the retro-dapper waxed mustache.) Cambridge Common is across the street from the West Side, but you wouldn't exactly call it competition: it's a big bar with a large-screen TV and curly fries on the menu. The West Side, by contrast, is the kind of place where they don't even say "fries": the bartender finishes his description of an $8 steak-sandwich special by saying it comes with frites.

To put it crudely, if you averaged together every bistro in the South End and rounded off the result to the nearest whole number, you'd end up with the West Side Lounge. It's a very cleanly designed space with every aesthetic gesture of urban bistro-hood: a long narrow room, cushy little booths on one side and a banquette on the other, a bar where about a dozen people can have glasses of wine and appetizers. The walls are the color of pumpkin soup; the gold-mesh lampshades cast a warm yellow light across the room. It sounds almost generic, but the place fills a definite need: there isn't a restaurant quite like this anywhere else in the area.

Like most chef-owned bistros, it may strike you as a bit on the expensive side. Soup, an entrée, and two glasses of wine at the bar ran me $35 before tip. But Tenuta's cooking seems to have sharpened since Cena, where his enthusiasm sometimes outpaced his focus, and the result is a place where the prices seem pretty much in line with the food, at least by 1999 standards. It doesn't hurt that the staff, in spite of that "frites," is wicked friendly and not at all pretentious. Plus, everyone behaves as if they know each other.

Actually, I think everyone does: one night my friend and I were seated at a two-person table tightly squeezed between two groups of people who realized they knew each other and began a conversation right across us. We played buffer zone until they all settled down to their meals. The West Side does get a fair number of younger people, but a lot of the customers are like our neighbors that night: Cambridge boomer types who probably met years ago at a McGovern rally and now send their kids to the same eco-ski camp in Vermont. Here's what they're eating: an excellent mixed-green salad tossed in a light cider vinaigrette ($5). A neat but overpriced raclette plate ($8) consisting of split red-bliss potatoes blanketed with melted raclette cheese and garnished with an assortment of pickled vegetables. A curious and delicious deconstructed niçoise salad ($8) consisting of seared rare tuna, niçoise olives, a wedge of hard-boiled egg, and a couple of white anchovies.

They are also, if they are smart, ordering the wonderful soup (about $5). One night the soup was pumpkin, a soft orange confection spreading across a wide white plate. It was spiced almost like a pie, with a scribble of oil across the middle and some currants tossed in for texture. This week, the soup is butternut squash, even silkier, with a brown-sugary garnish in the middle and a few chunks of chestnuts. I actually had a Food Moment eating this soup, something that does not often happen to me with dishes that have no meat in them. I was transported, between the mouth-filling rich taste and that enlivening dollop of sweetness, into thoughts of how this sort of autumnal food can be really, spiritually good.

Then I was distracted by the people at the bar next to me, an attractive Spanish couple who had just begun trying to swallow each other's tongues.

I ran though a few more appetizers at the West Side. A rather beige plate of gnocchi ($8) is starchy and filling enough to make a decent small meal; the gnocchi have a freewheeling shape, and are tossed with oyster mushrooms and garnished with a sage leaf. There's also a pizza ($7), a flatbread sliced into three strips with a European-style topping of sweet goopy tomato slices and garlic and onion.

The entrées, like the appetizers, floated freely between France and Italy for inspiration. Nothing was huge. Every plate, in true bistro style, was a fairly complete meal. A plate of roast chicken ($16) had a shiny, flavorful skin, with slightly dry meat inside, and came on a bed of farro, a bulgur-like grain that was quite intensely flavored with kalamata olives and (I think) a pan reduction from the chicken. There was also a pile of braised greens on the plate. Risotto Milanese ($18) was a nice size for one person: a little hill of saffron-yellow rice topped with seared scallops and ringed with a crown of small but intensely flavored mussels.

There's an interesting dinner possibility at West Side: a "vegan prix fixe" menu, three vegan dishes for $25. I didn't try it, but I did sit at the bar one night and order an all-veggie dinner: the excellent butternut-squash soup and a plate of orecchiette ($15), a pasta shaped like a floppy ladies' hat. It came in a nice broth tossed with braised bitter greens and sweet slices of stewed tomato. It can be hard for cooks to get deep flavors using only vegetables, but Tenuta does nice job creating a rich-tasting base for dishes like this without using meat stocks.

Wine, of course, is always vegetarian; with dinner I had a lean Chilean chardonnay ($5.75) and an oaky Benziger chard ($7.50), both of which went nicely with the food. I'd like to see a $4 glass of wine, honestly, though at least the most expensive red -- a Wolf Blass shiraz from Australia ($7) -- was gratifyingly big-flavored.

Desserts were modest in size and handsome. A chocolate bread pudding ($5) wore a hat of white whipped cream and green mint sprigs; a cranberry tart ($5) came with some squiggles of caramelized orange peel. I didn't think to ask if it was vegan.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser[a]

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