Rendezvous had an unlikely start – it used to be a Burger King in the middle of Central Sq - not the most fabulous of beginnings. A Boston Globe review I read a while back (I only hate Alison Arnett a little. I mostly just want her job) noted that the ambience of the restaurant is disturbed by the Burger King-like design of the space. Whatever. Yes, from the outside it looks BK-like with its sloped glass awning type thing, and the room is a perfect square. But when you step inside, all thoughts of greasy smelly fried things fall away. The space is warm and inviting - the walls are painted an alive deep yellow and are lined with earth-tone paintings. The back wall is cut to allow glimpses of the kitchen without revealing too much of the technical side of the restaurant.
The servers and hosts were so nice! It was a very pretension free environment, which I always appreciate. I liked that everyone that worked there weren't grudging or irritated or... like me in lab, for example (I think there may be a theme emerging here). They all seemed happy to be there. The hosts especially seemed to take the restaurant and the patrons personally, like they actually cared about my evening. Neat.
The focus of the restaurant is Mediterranean, including North Africa. The kitchen tries to use local and organic produce whenever possible. I was thoroughly conflicted over the menu (always a good sign) but finally settled on the grilled Portuguese sardines to start. The server unobtrusively told me how to eat it the fish. Good thing he did too. I wasn’t sure how to approach at first. The skin of the fish was perfectly crisp, while the white was flesh tender and juicy (I almost wrote succulent but just couldn’t bring myself to be that much of a food writer snob. Guess I kind of used it anyway). The olive oil based sauce around the fish was infused with fennel, fennel seeds, lemon, and garlic and tasted light and summery. The fennel, parsley and lemon worked wonderfully well together.
On to the seafood chowder. I was at first weary of ordering something that sounded like a fall dish (as if we’ve been having summery weather up here. Not like it’s August or anything). I needn’t have worried. The base of the chowder was a light cream, not the heavy and thick stew that I have grown used to in Northeast chowder. The cream was cut by the acidity of red and yellow grape tomatoes and the fresh corn. The lobster and mussels were both very tender and perfectly done. No rubberiness to be had.
My friend had the roasted leg of lamb with harissa, couscous, and grilled eggplant. Again, the initial concern was that the dish was unseasonably heavy (actually, a good portion of the menu did not scream summer to me) but there was no need to fear. The lamb was remarkably light. Or as light as lamb can ever be. No unnecessary grease was to be found; the gaminess of the lamb was muted by the slightly sweet harissa on top. I tasted cinnamon in the harissa but I was obviously imagining it as the harissa recipe on the Rendezvous website makes no mention of cinnamon. We may have been drinking… Since the lamb wasn't terribly lamb-like, I found the eggplant to be the most memorable. The skin of the eggplant was bordering crispiness while the insides melted. Perfect.
[An aside: the website is worth a visit. The chef/owner posts recipes from the restaurant. There is an interesting-looking recipe for a French cabbage stew, garbure. It's on my growing list of things to make].
And then! There was a then. I tried eau de vie (French brandy) for the first time. Wow. It was perfectly clear with a powerful pear scent (this was pear eau de vie, obviously). Despite the concentrated fruity smell, I felt as though I was drinking rubbing alcohol. It burned all the way down. I am no stranger to vodka, believe me, but this hurt! I think they call it eau de vie because it can bring people back from a coma. The aftertaste was remarkable, I have to admit. A soft and clear pear taste lingered for ages! Or until I absolutely had to have another bite of cake. Neat overall, but I am not sure it was worth the suffering.
The dishes I had surprised me in that they sounded heavy and imposing but were actually light and perfectly seasonal. I walked out slightly less a skeptic than when I walked in. And I loved the room, Alison Arnett be damned. Suffice it to say that I would not cry if all Burger Kings across the world turned into Rendezvous. Or would that be Rendezvouses?
502 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139