Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rendezvous

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].

Now for the dessert – orange polenta cake with crème fraiche and summer berries. The polenta cake was dense and moist and not too sweet, with polenta gritties throughout for texture. Crème fraiche was its regular tangy and refreshing self – or as refreshing as pure cream can be.

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?

Rendezvous
502 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
617.576.1900

4 comments:

Archna said...

The pictures look amazing! I'm tempted to lick the screen...I'm kidding (but really I'm not). The pics look great! :)

Mary said...

You should go back to Rendezvous if you haven't been back since your initial post. They've really come into their own over the past 6 months or so and are taking more risks in the kitchen. The charcuterie rivaled the Butcher Shop with pig ear terrine, house cured duck proscuitto and something else I can't recall. The skate (and I think this may be only place to get skate in Boston?) was absolutely spectacular. Usually I get the duck which is also changing (they improve on the traditional cassoulet with, of all things, cabbage!) or the rotating dish which is sometimes lamb sometime pork loin of some sort but really... the skate blew me away. You're right that the dishes sound heavy but leave you feeling food about yourself. But really, it's all about the incredibly Mediterranean flavors at Rendezvous, and this is especially true of the appetizers. The vegetable antipasto (seasonal so now it's winter) and the grilled octopus plate with a bit of watercress and chick pea cake of some sort make you feel like you are not in Cambridge anymore and certainly not in Burger King. Same is true of the incredible frisee salad with duck confit, walnuts, pears and incredible spicy-fruity reduction of some sort that they use to dress the plate. This salad, a glass of red wine and the cheese plate (Steve gets great local cheeses) make a whole meal -- but it's hard to stop there at this place.

I'd recommend going on Sunday night when you can get an appetizer, entree and dessert all for $30.

Anna said...

Wow. That is a very indepth account. Cool. Anything that has duck near it, I love. Cassoulet is one of my favorites of all time. I haven't actually been back since this summer, but that is not because I had a bad experience. Far from it. I will definitely try it again. It is almost pointless to go to a restaurant the first 6 months or so that they are open. They do need time to settle it. You don't happen to work at Rendezvous, do you, Mary? :) Just curious.

Mary said...

Ah no-- haven't worked in the business since that barista/hostess gig in college. Just love Rendezvous... though I bet you guessed both of those things.

The duck is really really stellar and that's not a trivial thing. Tried it at Rialto once when the boy got it and it was awful! Will control myself and not go on a Jody Adams rant now but, ick. EVOO in Cambridge has a cute dish called Duck Duck Goose which gets major presentation points but is bland and boring. Also fairly good duck at Aspasia (underrated by everyone except the Zagat folk) so if you ever find yourself in Huron village it might be worth a visit.

Cheers to the D&G LB btw-- I wear it half the year. Pure by Jil Sander is similar actually, that's the other half.