Dining Out: Bergamot
Keith Pooler’s new Somerville restaurant is a lovely place to dine – even if it overdoes the whimsy.
"I WISH THEM WELL," said my dining companion after a long and mostly satisfactory dinner at Bergamot. I can see why: It’s the kind of place you want to flourish.
[sidebar]Located in the old Evoo space on the Somerville-Cambridge line, Bergamot has so many parallels to its predecessor that it’s hard to believe the location is a coincidence, even if chef-owner Keith Pooler swears it is. And it’s hard not to compare them. Both are the creations of well-trained, experienced chefs who worked their way around town but longed to spread their wings. (Pooler has cooked at Excelsior, Harvest, and Scampo.) Both feel intensely personal. And both are the most appealing kind of dressy restaurant – designed for people who appreciate interesting food and a grownup experience without pomp or high prices. I have always felt comfortable in the high-ceilinged room with widely spaced tables, but Pooler and his business partner, Servio Garcia, have freshened the decor, so it’s brighter and more welcoming now.
Truth is, I found the food a little odd. But I felt the same way about Evoo when it opened, too. Like Evoo’s Peter McCarthy, Pooler starts from a French base and incorporates all manner of seasonal ingredients. But where McCarthy favors bold Asian sauces, hot peppers, and vinegary relishes, Pooler’s ingredients are subtler: saffron, warm Indian spices, and candied walnuts. Even sauces that sound domineering, like one made with "stinging nettle," ramp, and garlic, turn out to be tame. The only intrusive note is the overuse of salt.
Under the direction of Garcia, previously of Craigie on Main and Casablanca, the servers were unusually well informed and in tune with the chef. As sympathetic as they were, though, I couldn’t agree when one said, "The chef makes sure you can taste every individual element on the plate." I found there are often too many things on the plate to make sense of, and they’re fussy.
Yet two of the first courses were masterly. Pea green salad ($9) was elegant and fresh, with a truffle vinaigrette that broke my rule of despising anything with truffle oil (maybe because Pooler uses real truffle shavings). It coated the crisp Eva’s Garden greens like cream, and each element he added seemed just right: fresh peas, matchsticks of home-cured Berkshire ham, mild pecorino. I couldn’t resist the deep-fried soft-boiled egg on top – a Scotch egg without the sausage – from which tabs of panko dangled.
Ham and egg also appear in the sole escabeche ($12). The hard-boiled egg was finely diced, and the "shards" of prosciutto crackled like potato chips. The usually flavorless lemon sole was the star, fried and marinated in a balsamic vinaigrette with thyme and garlic. This escabeche avoided the acidic taste, heavy breading, and oily marinade of typical versions, and was both delicate and substantial.
Quite a few of the dishes, though, have one too many ingredients in the mix. Roasted beets with Shy Brothers curd ($10) came with an excellent puree of ground trimmings of roasted beets and walnuts, spooned into oval quenelle