Dining out at The Blue Room
THE BLUE ROOM DOESN’T need to reinvent itself. The formula has been working since 1996, when one of its current owners, Nick Zappia, purchased the restaurant with then-chef Steve Johnson. A spacious, friendly bar takes up about a third of the space, and the dining room is dominated by a warm, open kitchen and has views of the glowing wood-fired grill. Johnson’s manning of the stoves helped define a new kind of hospitality, one that influenced young cooks for years.
[sidebar]Now, of course, everyone’s launching restaurants in Kendall, nearby Central Square, and the stretch between them known as Area Four. Zappia and his wife and co-owner, Liz Vilardi, were pioneers in this new food corridor, opening the stylish wine and cheese shop Central Bottle on Mass. Ave. in 2009. Amid the flurry of local activity, the Blue Room has kept humming along, distinguished by its geniality and the comfort of the booths, folk art, and brick walls that make it feel like home.
Nonetheless, Zappia and Vilardi recently hired Robert Grant, who spent three years at the Butcher Shop in the South End, to inject new life and new ideas into the menu. With Grant running the kitchen, there’s more energy, an increased focus on local ingredients, and terrific first courses that complement the superb wines on Vilardi’s list. If only Grant’s main courses were as well executed as those starters.
An appetizer of duck leg confit with lentils and pickled beets ($11) played to Grant’s strengths: The skin was crisp and the meat moist, and I could taste the spices and rosemary used in the salt cure. The Puy lentils simmered in duck stock had balanced richness, while the tiny pieces of pickled golden beets added a bit of acidity. Wood-grilled octopus ($12), which is slowly simmered in olive oil with lemon before grilling, was as tender as any octopus I’ve had. (The Brooklyn company Grant buys it from is known for tenderizing it in a washing machine, he told me.) It had a marvelous, light smokiness from the grill, and paired well with the accompanying fingerling potatoes and Little Gem lettuce leaves in a heavy coating of dill-and-mint vinaigrette.
French onion soup ($12, below) was the best I’ve had since dining at Deuxave — a beefy, unctuous stock with layers of onion, herb, and beef flavor, and the sweet, mellow-wood aroma of sherry. Making it is a three-day process, which gives the broth full complexity. Braised beef tongue ($9, at top) is a similarly involved dish: It’s cooked for hours in beef stock, cut into cubes, sautéed in butter with sliced trumpet mushrooms, and served over a glaze of reduced cooking liquid, resulting in sweet, soft, beautifully flavored meat.
Pair any of these with a glass of wine and a basket of the mini Iggy’s Francese loaves or the changing “one perfect cheese” plate with homemade confiture ($9), and you have a great pre- or post-movie light meal.