Rendezvous in Central Square
Rendezvous in Central Square
502 Mass Ave, Cambridge
Open Sun–Thurs, 5–10 pm; and Fri & Sat, 5–11 pm
AE, MC, VO
No Valet Parking
I don’t really follow chefs around, but Rendezvous in Central Square makes a strong argument for doing so, or at least for following Steve Johnson, formerly of the Blue Room. Johnson always could cook, always liked to be out front with his customers, and always had the right ideas about local ingredients and how to put Mediterranean spins on them. But with this new restaurant, something has just clicked. Age, experience, time to think? Whatever came together for Johnson, I don’t know when I last spent a restaurant evening that seemed so right. Probably at the Nightingale, which suits the South End much as Rendezvous in Central Square suits, you know, Central Square.
It wasn’t an unusual evening in structure. I tasted the same 15 things I usually taste: four appetizers, four entrées, four desserts, a few glasses of wine. I just happened to really like all the things I tasted, and I liked the look and feel of the place, and even the background music.
Things certainly start well with slices of a crusty Iggy’s bread full of big holes, the better to absorb the unsalted butter. My favorite appetizer was squab bisteeya ($12), the most famous dish from Morocco: here, a small, intense triangle of mincemeat wrapped in filo dough and served on field greens. Unlike most local attempts at bisteeya, this one isn’t too sweet (quinces and raisins instead of apples or just raisins), and doesn’t have too much cinnamon. The salad is garnished with pistachios.
Even a salad of simple greens ($7) is garnished with flavorful bits of fried onion, while an escarole salad ($8) involves baby artichokes, a good mix of radicchio, and shavings of parmesan cheese arranged like flagstones on a levee. The soup of our day was spiced cauliflower ($8), wonderfully creamy with a hint of dry curry and a garnish of roast cauliflower pieces.
The killer entrée was a special on roast cod ($23). I like cod, but this was exceptionally crisp on the outside and meltingly delicious inside, like the difference between fried and poached chicken. The fish sat on deceptively light cubes of seasonal squash (and maybe some were apple?). Grilled swordfish ($22) was almost as remarkable, an especially light and fluffy steak on top of faro, the fashionable wheat with grains as large as barley, and topped with "pickled heirloom peppers" — fortunately not too pickled, and inherited from ancestors who preferred sweet to hot peppers. A pile of "salsa verde" was as lively as Indian mint chutney.
A bowl of lobster, mussels, and shrimp simmered with fennel, tomato, harissa (Moroccan hot sauce), and saffron rice ($26) came off as halfway between bouillabaisse and paella, but it was not a compromise in any sense. All the seafood was correctly done, the saffron was not overpowering, and the soupy rice, with all the flavors, was the best of the best — and seductively, there was not too much of it.
In the key of meat, a Moroccan-style lamb tagine ($24) did have some of the usual problem of restaurant tagines — that chefly habit of cooking the meat and vegetables separately so it isn’t really stew — but it was still way above average. Again, restraining the cinnamon makes Moroccan food a lot more multidimensional, and there was also an exceptional granular morsel in there — a persimmon? Maybe just a Medjool date or a pear? — along with spoon-tender lamb, lots of juicy gravy, that just-enough couscous, potatoes, and carrots.
Wines always show well with really good food, and even better — a restaurant veteran learns — in oversize glasses. Someone here has picked with a modern, French-inflected palate that made every glass perfect for this dinner. A Vinum Cellars 2004 chenin blanc ($7) was one of the better California whites I’ve tried this year. This was as dry and fruity and elegant as a fine French Savannieres or pinot blanc, and more austere than the New Zealand sauvignon blancs.
Domaine Luc Pirlet 2003 "Les Bariques" Syrah-Mourvedre ($7) is a triumph of contemporary French winemaking. Top winemakers have been buying up undervalued vineyards in secondary districts (in this case Roussillon), replanting more prestigious grape varieties, and investing in California technology. In this case, the result is a basket of red fruit in the nose, yet as soft in the mouth as a good merlot. Its stylistic big brother, Domaine Devois du Chlaus 2003 ($14), from nearby Languedoc, has an anise-y, Port-like aroma and so much structure I’d like to try it again in a year or two.
Desserts at Rendezvous didn’t miss a beat, either. My favorite was apple crostada ($7), which almost always pleases me, but even more than usual with first-class pastry and a lavender ice cream that was just slightly flowery, another triumph of the lighter, more mature hand on seasonings. The group vote would probably have been for the panna cotta ($6), a nifty cream-jelly superbly set off with slices of kumquat and cranberry sauce.
The obligatory sorbet ($6) was mango. A fried crisp made a nice contrast. The obligatory molten-chocolate cake was "warm chocolate hazelnut" ($7) and it was likewise a fine example of its type, not overly molten and set off with cinnamon cream.
The setting is of-the-moment fashionable (bamboo-block tabletops) and classically fashionable (dark-wood booths and chairs, grey carpet, brick-orange walls, open metal ceiling, yellow wall over the bar, watercolors on the walls). The background music is well-selected R&B and jazz. Service was quite good, other than a pause between appetizers and entrées as the restaurant filled up. Since it’s going to be very full, very often, they will fix this.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.