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Posted by gustav at 05:01AM, Wednesday, November 03rd, 2004

The Rendezvous (restaurant review)

509 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA

We met some friends here for dinner this week. We had a meal which, while quite expensive, was in no way dazzling.

Rendezvous is in Central Square, occupying the old Burger King spot. The ghost of fast-food restaurants past seems to inhabit it: walls are mustard-colored, or ochre; combined with the dark brown stain on all the seating, the color-scheme turns out to be straight out of the Burger Kings of my youth -- especially when paired with the industrial metal ceiling, which has been painted dark brown, like countless suburban mall food-halls. The bar has some bizarre feng shui: we felt trapped and very short, like a kid at the grownups' table, while waiting for the rest of our party to arrive. Yes, the tabletops are pressed bamboo, which, in itself, is trendy; here, they seem wholly incongruous with the drabness and conservatism of the surroundings.

One can argue that decor is secondary to the experience of the food itself. However, I think what you pay for when you eat out at a nice restaurant is the entire experience. I've also noticed that the look of a place is hardly orthogonal to the quality and nature of its food. At this price-point, there's a good number of trendy, fascinating-looking places to eat around Boston: there's Central Kitchen right up the street (which also has a far-superior wine list), as well as B&G Oysters in the South End, or O-Sushi and the almost-as-hip-as-Vancouver coolness of Spire downtown. There are also places that pull off more traditional looks very well, with bright touches to make them feel both solid and sophisticated, rather than frumpy: Aquitaine, Gargoyle's, Sel de la Terre, and the Butcher Shop spring to mind. In this price-range, Boston dining is starting to feel very hip, and Rendezvous sticks out as woefully drab in comparison. In the end, I feel uncomfortable spending 26 bucks for an entree at a place that still looks and feels as sophisticated as the Burger King it replaced.

Moving on...

The wine-list was pretty unspectacular, from what we saw. Each member of our party had at least one glass of wine, and none of them was outstanding; worse, none of the reds we tried was even particularly good. A dearth of by-the-glass selections is hardly unusual, though. What is unusual is a 2002 Tandem Pinot for $90. We'd just come from paying $90 for a sublime Kistler Chardonnay at Evoo a few nights back -- that's less than you pay to get the wine direct from Kistler, if I remember correctly. We bought a bottle of the Tandem that was on the list here earlier this year for about $40, so it's kind of shocking to see it listed for about double the retail price.

As for what we had to drink: We had a Sauternes, which was not bad -- bright and fresh, and the best wine of the evening. I had the pinot on the by-the-glass list, which was over-oaked and uninteresting. One of our companions had a Syrah-Mourvedre blend (Domaine Luc Pirlet 2003 "Les Bariques"), which he said was far too young and tannic to be enjoyable. Another companion had the Vinum Cellars 2004 chenin blanc, which was okay. I did have a decent martini to start.

The service, overall, was competent, which is a truly impressive feat for a restaurant that's only been open about a month.

We were served bread while we waited for our starters. There was only one kind of bland sourdough, with four pieces, and one tab of butter to split four ways. No flavored olive oil with sea salt and heirloom peppercorns here. If we were paying fifteen bucks an entree, this would be entirely acceptable. At prices that compete with the Barbara Lynch offerings, it's not.

The starters and entrees were all decent, but not extraordinary. Everything I tasted had a sort of "brown," meaty flavor, including the fish. We ordered the Maine crab cakes with harissa and preserved lemon, for $12, which tasted as though they were fried in bacon grease (not necessarily a bad thing, though I hoped to have a brighter taste to contrast with my entree), with a rather repulsive sauce; and seared sea scallops with blood orange, fennel, and baby beets, which were rich and tasty, but still very "brown." For entrees, we had Gascon style duck 3 ways: grilled breast, confit leg, and country sausage, for $23 (the sausage was good, but the confit wasn't, the side was forgettable, and the presentation bland), and lobster and mussels simmered with fennel, tomato, harissa, and saffron rice for $26 -- a sort of lobster and mussel stew or paella (quite a bit better, but hardly sublime).

Some reviews I've read since we ate at Rendezvous go on about the Mediterranean menu here. I didn't notice; if asked, I'd have said it was an attempt at traditional French. In retrospect, the only dish we had that even seemed faintly Mediterranean was the lobster. Certainly the wine-list wasn't dominated by exciting Sangioveses or Riojas.

The menu, overall, seemed a bit unbalanced. I think for this price you should get a contrast of tastes fresh and mellow, tangy and deep, spicy and creamy, young and aged, and so on, to hold your attention. Isn't the great thing about contemporary American dining supposed to be the melding of traditional French technique and ingredients with the freshness, flavors, and deep sense of balance of West-Coast Japanese cooking, and ingredients from all over the world? What we tasted were traditional French ideas, dumbed down and Americanized in a way reminiscent of big chain restaurants, and all with the same monotonous flavor. When I can hop on the T and go up the street to Rustic Kitchen and be dazzled by brined salmon with pomegranate seeds and grapefruit, followed by a perfect pork chop, why should I come here to get three dishes, with generally insipid presentations, all of which taste like beef fried in bacon fat?

For dessert we all split a toasted almond panna cotta with cranberry-kumquat sauce for $6. This was, by far, the best dish of the night.

I feel bad about dissing a place so hard, when nothing was really terribly wrong. But then again, for this price, nothing was terribly right, either; I wasn't wowed by any one dish, or anything on the wine-list, and the atmosphere and decor were basically as bad as any I can recall seeing at a restaurant at this price-point in Cambridge or Boston. For the considerable sums that Rendezvous charges for their menu items, I want to be wowed. I want to eat food impressive for its freshness and contrasts and presentation. I want to see wines on the list that I can't resist trying, or have heard about but not found retail, and have useful conversations with the servers about them.

I'm sure there's a market in Boston for this kind of thing -- the place was almost full on a Tuesday night after Christmas, which must be great news for the owners. I just can't get excited about another me-too restaurant with no original ideas helping to push average prices up.

The poor value at Rendezvous was made very clear last night, when we went out with two other friends, and ate at Shilla in Harvard Square. We had an amazing assortment of dishes and appetizers, including whelk top-shells and excellent sushi and cod stew and bi bim bap, along with a few beers and a pot of sake. The meal was complex, the flavors interesting and complementary, and the decor at least not dull or redolent of fast-food joints. The service was just fine, and at the end, we'd spent almost exactly half of what we'd spent at Rendezvous -- for a far better meal for the same number of people. Life's too short to waste good time and good money on dull food.
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