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Posted by aaron and erik at 06:00AM, Friday, December 09th, 2005

Dante (restaurant review)

40 Edwin H. Land Boulevard, Cambridge

Aaron:
Dante is in the Royal Sonesta hotel, by the Charles River in Cambridge, and right across from the Camridgeside Galleria. Walking into the unfortunately-named hotel, one sees the mod furnishings that have started to characterize the hipper Boston hotels recently. The restaurant itself, though not as glam as Spire or No. 9 Park, is light and very vertical, and seems far from old-fashioned. We're happy to see the recent Boston trend towards good lighting and light, modern spaces make its way North across the river. The tables have adequate space around them, and it's possible to carry on quiet conversations over the extraordinary food.

Erik:
We accreted in the bar area. I was almost going to write "the pleasant but unremarkable bar area." Then I tried to think about what was pleasant about it and couldn't really come up with anything. I was in a good mood and the bar didn't kill it. And sometimes that's pleasant enough. The vibe is informal. There are a couple of TVs. I am glad I took the bartender's drink suggestion. At first, "champagne mojito" sounded a bit too whimsical. It was delicious.

Aaron:
I didn't actually love the champagne mojito at first. It was only after I'd delved through the unsatisfying champagne layer to the rummy mint-infused bedrock below that it got good. I'll take a regular mojito next time.

Brian:
My martini tasted like a martini.

Erik:
At first they wanted to put us at two two-tops pushed together, with two guests seated facing each other at one of the tables and the third at the other, facing an empty chair. They didn't object at all to our request for a single, smaller square table by the window, but they seemed a bit surprised that we'd forgo elbow room for intimacy.

Aaron:
The service is laid-back but knowledgeable. Our excellent waitress was able to answer all of our food-based questions in detail (though, unfortunately, hadn't tasted the first bottle of wine we were interested in). Service was not lightning-quick -- but then, that's not the kind of restaurant this is. It wasn't European-slow either. It was just right for a relaxed dinner. The servers did not share one all-too-common stumbling point we've experienced recently at other high end restaurants: we've had a number of meals where the servers mumble the dishes' names, or even invent new ones on the spot, while placing them on the table. Here, the servers announced the contents of our dishes intelligibly. A small detail, but after a glass of wine, I like to be reminded what it was I actually ordered. I also feel less like I'm being served by migrant workers who are housed, crouching and chained, in the basement, except for their five allotted minutes of freedom each day, during which they must ferry dishes to fat ungrateful Americans at table. Brian found the service a little too relaxed for the price. I'll happily take laid back staff and excellent food over snappy, high-energy service and a disappointing meal.

Erik:
I staked out a course for appetizers, and we followed it to our great benefit: get everything from the Play Pen and the Raw sections save the oysters, plus the "guitarra" pasta. My faves were the juicy clams, the complex escargots, and sweet onion tart. Everything was presented beautifully.

When the pasta came after all that freshness and lightness, I could appreciate its strengths but it had a heavy, baked quality that was out of step for me.

Aaron:
I was interested in a Sancerre on the wine list, but our waitress persuaded us to go for some sort of South African white, which was inoffensive and marginally interesting, but with an abbreviated finish that didn't stand up to the quality of the appetizers we'd ordered.

These included Mediterranean tuna tar tar with "capers, olives, arugula, evoo, and artichoke chip," for $12. I found this unexciting. I was looking forward to the grilled baby cuttlefish "with wild asparagus and soft herb lemon vinaigrette," for $13, but this too was underwhelming: nice texture and snap in the lemony flesh, but nothing really going on in the taste, and overall too light, with no balance. For the most expensive appetizer on the list, it was also the least exciting.

The remaining apps were all much, much better. The caramelized onion tarte tatin "with goat cheese, fava beans and aged balsamic", for $7, was a hit. I wasn't blown away -- probably because such a warming food was a little out of place on a Summer evening -- but the onion was competently caramelized, and my companions really liked the dish. The escargot, which was the first thing I tried, was a foodgasm for me. They looked totally standard -- six little breaded snails sitting on an escargot plate. The menu says these come "with truffle-whipped potato spuma, candied lemon and garlicky crumbs," for $10. For all the floridity of the description, I didn't so much taste truffle-whippedness, or even lemon. I tasted garlic and butter and excellent preparation, and could have eaten another dozen or so. These were really amazing.

Erik:
By the way: all that fuss about the andouille corndog? It's justified.

Aaron:
The other app was the mini lobster clambake -- "Andouille sausage corn dog, roasted lobster, local clams and fennel reduction," for $12. It wasn't the lobster that was great, it was the corn dog. For once, this is one of those French Laundry-influenced, trendy, unexpected miniaturized preparations of a white-bread classic that really works. The quality of the andouille is a big part of that -- the spiciness, the juiciness and texture, contrasted with the bouillabaisse-like reduction with all its lobster essence and the earthy cornmeal, amounted to a near-foodgasm. This was so good.

Our pasta course was the handmade spaghetti 'a la guitarra' "with Maine crab, guanciale, sweet peas and lemony crumbs," for $12. This was basically spaghetti with butter and lemon, and little chunks of crab. And it was damn fine -- really far better than it should have been, I felt. I know my companions didn't fall for this quite as much as I did, but for me, the fresh and snappy peas were perfectly complemented by the lemon and fried bread taste, and this was just what I wanted at the time.

The biggest failing in our meal at this point, as I mentioned, was the wine. I feel we would have been better off spending up to twice as much as we did on a white with some real structure to complement the food so far. By now we'd finished the first bottle, and decided on a 2003 Au bon Climat pinot for our entrees. I think this was a good match. It would have been nice to have the bottle open up for maybe another hour or so before we got to it.

Erik:
We intercoursed with an arugula salad that had amazing criminis. However, the dressing's acidity should have been balanced a bit better.

Beavis:
Heh heh. Heh heh. Intercourse. Heh.

Aaron:
The salad was adequate though nothing extraordinary.

My entree was the steak frite. The fries were fine -- no match for those of dearly-departed Truc. The steak was really excellent, cooked perfectly. The beef was tasty and adequately fatty. I could have wished for slightly less stringy texture, but it was still very, very good. The side, watercress in vinegar and truffle oil, was amazing. This was another near-foodgasm. Watercress and truffle oil! Who would have thought? A heavy fatty dish like this could be sunk by such a thick taste as truffles, but mixing the oil with a nice balsamic and pouring it over crunchy watercress made for an unearthly balance. This was shockingly good.

Erik had "coffee bean crusted veal t-bone: warm pea tendrils, flash sautÚd tiny tomatoes, vinegar peppers and taleggio," for $29.

Erik:
My entree was a big piece of moist coffee-encrusted veal with spicy flash-sauteed tiny tomatoes in a cheese sauce. When it came, I had to remind myself about the coffee involved in the preparation because it didn't look or taste like coffee. It was superb. The meat was cooked to perfection with just the right amount of tasty fat around the edge. It expressed solid meat flavors enhanced by a subtle complex of other tastes that I didn't feel the need to figure out: they worked really well on the edge of recognizability. The tomatoes were a riotous counterpoint. I enjoyed them very much.

Brian had "basil roasted guinea hen, with spring's greatest vegetables and wild mushrooms, " for $31.

Erik:
One of us ordered a desert whose accompaniment of red-peppercorn sorbet stole the sweet course show. It made me want to experiment.

I didn't think there was anything special about the South-African white suggested by our brisk yet friendly matron, I mean waitress. She hummed to herself when she switched silverware or looked out for us in other ways. Her assistant actually audibly muttered "shit" when she dropped a knife. Maybe it was my indestructible good mood, but I found the service charming in spite--or maybe because--of all this. Bottom line: if the staff don't act snooty, if they are friendly, if they are mindful of our moods and desires, if they act like human beings, I'll enjoy the service, maybe even more than what I'd get from a cadre of Ecole Hoteliere valedictorians. The Au Bon Climat pinot noir which we chanced upon next went very well with my main.

Aaron:
As I said, I'll take charm and good food over un-earned snoot any day. Besides, the waitresses Czech accent reminded me of Helsinki, and that's a good thing. The total bill was okay for a boatload of appetizers, a salad, two bottles of wine, and three great entrees, and the atmosphere was congenial to conversation, if a little less trendy or architecturally daring than it might have been. I was pretty damn pleased with this place.

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