Dining Out: Catalyst
When rustic and industrial meet French-style finesse, good things happen — most of the time.
Cambridge may be Boston’s new restaurant hub. The long swath between Central and Kendall squares is now a thriving and wholly invented business district, and the young, tech-savvy, and academic crowds working in the new office and apartment buildings are prime targets for restaurateurs. Chef Peter McCarthy led the way with his relocated Evoo, and Michael Leviton created another airy, spare, modern space with Area Four, an all-day coffee shop, bar, and restaurant. But none of the great places that have opened there in the past few years has been like Catalyst: a restaurant that tries to bridge high-tech and artisan, casual and grand, high-gloss and rustic.
Chef-owner William Kovel seems to want to create a new kind of brasserie, one that mixes the luxury and service of Boston restaurants like Mistral and Aujourd’hui — where Kovel was chef before the Four Seasons decided to close it — with the flat-surfaced, steel-and-glass look of Evoo and Area Four. It’s huge, with two high-ceilinged dining areas and a lounge space that features a virtual-looking blue flame burning behind glass. The exposed, white-tiled kitchen and open ceiling with visible ductwork may be stark and industrial, but the midcentury-style upholstered wood chairs and Sputnik-era chandeliers add warmth.
The food, though, is as uneven as it is ambitious. Some dishes take the current vogue for barely altered local produce to a more imaginative realm, and show excellent technique. But others range from the dull to the poorly made, with undeveloped flavors or underwhelming textures.
Appetizers are very promising. “Crispy” quail ($15) is an unobvious but very good take on the Chinese dish of flash-fried quail. It’s served with black Mission fig and homemade autumn olive jam, over an acidic gastrique (vinegar-sugar sauce). That the quail is fried doesn’t register — there’s no batter, the meaty breast is moist and richly flavored, and it’s gone before you can think about it. Seared spice-crusted hiramasa ($11), thin slices of a nicely oily farmed Pacific fish typically used in sushi, was both delicate and substantial, with a nearly candied orange-yuzu syrup.
Kovel’s salads are the other most impressive starters: His combination of arugula, endive, and Asian pear with walnuts, crumbled Berkshire blue cheese, and mustard vinaigrette ($9) brought new life to a now-clichéd salad (shown above), thanks to a lightly acidic dressing and brightly flavored vegetables. A seasonal salad of chopped, gently pickled vegetables similar to an Italian giardiniera ($9) was a fine antipasto, garnished with shards of deep-fried shallots that reminded me of canned Durkee onions, only fresher and better.
Kovel shows his skill in two of three house-made pastas. The ravioli stuffed with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms ($10 for a half portion, $19 for a full; shown below) were delicate but sturdy, with a wonderful French-style filling of mushroom-onion-shallot duxelles flavored with Madeira. The Madeira accentuated the mushrooms’ woodsy depth, just as a few tricks intensified the taste of Georgia “candy roaster” squash tortellini with braised escarole ($10 for a half portion, $19 for a full). Kovel drains the roasted, puréed squash overnight to concentrate its flavor; adds honey and ricotta; and enriches the sauce with crème fraîche. The two dishes are rare successful examples of French-style pastas — which are usually undercooked, buttery disasters.
Unfortunately, garganelli with bacon and black-truffle butter ($10, half portion only), a signature dish, was an undercooked, buttery, underflavored disaster, with cardboardy tubes of ridged pasta. The only nice things on the plate were three prime nuggets of roast chicken, a cut from the back of the bird called the oyster.
It’s a worrying inconsistency. So is the caramelized onion soup ($9), puréed to obliterate every bit of textural interest and at once sweet and sharply acidic, as if the kitchen had grated green apples into it.
There are more lapses in the main courses. Mild-flavored cod in a “mussels chowder” ($27) tasted more of cream, onion, and chive than the seafood or bacon; olive oil “smashed” potatoes were a strange addition to a white, creamy dish with little to chew on besides the mussels. Spiced chickpea fritters with yogurt-mint sauce ($22) were perfectly fine, but more like an hors d’oeuvre than a satisfying vegetarian entrée.
Lemon sole (shown above) with roasted baby fennel, creamed leeks, and vermouth butter ($27), though, was an elegant, polished French dish, the cream and butter well judged, the fish with lovely flavor and texture. Organic rotisserie chicken with chanterelles ($26) was even better: moist meat, wonderfully crisped skin, and expertly sautéed mushrooms and haricots verts over a Madeira-spiked jus. It shows you how well Kovel can cook. Plus, he roasts chunky “dripping” potatoes under the chicken, which baste and brown in the bird fat. Who can resist them? Not me.
Desserts (all $9) by chef de cuisine Anthony Mazzotta — a college pal of Kovel’s who worked in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Per Se, as well as local spots Toro and Evoo — take some of the experimental curves you’d expect around Technology Square. A couple are good, one unexpectedly so: butterscotch-and-passion-fruit pudding (shown below), a combination that worked beautifully, the acidic fruit underscoring the dish’s sweetness. Whipped cream and toasted nuts made it like a festive sundae, with fried pound-cake batons for dipping. A disk of chocolate mousse over a thin shortbread cookie glazed with chocolate caramel was airy and fun to eat, the plate dotted with banana purée and chocolate sauce like a map of the solar system. The “Bosc pear tart” though, wasn’t a tart. A torte, maybe: a crustless low rectangle of thin pear slices baked in a rich ground-almond-and-egg pastry. Oddest was a “root beer float” mixed with sassafras-ginger syrup and layered with vanilla ice cream and, at one visit, an inexplicable sludge of crushed blueberries. (On a later excursion, the dessert featured apple slices.) Served in an old-fashioned ice cream fountain glass, it was better viewed than consumed.
The food may not be worth crossing the river for yet, but Catalyst will work, I think, to serve the kind of customer that its neighborhood has created. It achieves a casual elegance without the starchiness of a white-tablecloth restaurant, and the ambitious cuisine suits both important occasions and business dinners. What will help it live up to its potential? The opposite of a catalyst: just a bit of time.
Catalyst, 300 Technology Sq., Cambridge, 617-576-3000, catalystrestaurant.com.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/01/restaurant-review-dining-out-at-catalyst/