Restaurant Review: UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge

A unified kitchen is turning out food that’s better than ever.

Grilled quailGrilled quail with boudin blanc, Soirée Dining Room, $28

Another exemplary first course: sautéed Nantucket scallops ($17) that retain all the sweetness of the New England prize without a hint of rubberiness. Meyer-lemon purée and the fresh crunch of julienned celery-root rémoulade make this an elegant winter dish. A crackling salad ($13), though, is just baffling, featuring strings of frisée accented by fatty, puffy curls of deep-fried pork skin, with more salt from tough little lardons and more fat from overripe wedges of Twig Farm tomme.

The fish entrées are various degrees of misfire: underdone monkfish ($27), the tough, gelatinous skin slathered with a raw-tasting spice rub and the accompanying crisped squid tentacles marred by an odd herbal Chartreuse-based sauce; and flavorless red snapper ($28) in a dull Peruvian red-pepper sauce.

But strengths not apparent at the Monday Club Bar emerge here, especially in two roast poultry dishes: applewood-grilled quail ($28) that you’ll pick up to eat every last bite of (with Regis’s skillful boudin blanc worth the whole plate by itself); and herb-butter-stuffed roast chicken ($25) with moist, thankfully unbrined meat. Roasted quince and parsnips, buttery jus, and wood-grilled escarole make the chicken the most polished and complete main course. And the wood-grilled Archer Farms tenderloin ($34) will win over anyone who doubts that grass-fed beef can be as beefy and sweet as corn-fed: The wood grilling brings it to pink tenderness, and sweet cippolini onions cooked down in sherry are nicely traditional.

Then there are the desserts, which, under the supervision of pastry chef Maria Santos, are worth going to either dining room for. They’re unafraid to be unfussy and sweet, though they’re not cloying. Many date from the beginning, when Hughes developed recipes in her home kitchen, like the classic butterscotch pudding ($8) with triangles of pecan shortbread cookies stuffed with a chewy caramel. The “Zebra cake” ($8) is a high, fat wedge of old-fashioned chocolate layer cake with many thin layers of dulce de leche buttercream.

But the finest way to end any meal is with the “signature milk chocolate pecan turtles” (three for $8), which combine the best of New Orleans pralines with the best of a Whitman’s sampler: that is, pure brown sugar and butter, with the molasses overtones of muscovado sugar, rum, and fresh pecans. They’re at once gilt-edged indulgent and unpretentiously welcoming—the balance UpStairs continues to strike.

Parmesan polpettiniParmesan polpettini ($11), available at the Monday Club Bar.

Other Menu Highlights
Lobster pizzetta, $19, Butterscotch pudding, $8, and Zebra cake, $8, all Monday Club Bar.
Beet agnolotti, $14, Soirée Dining Room.

91 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-864-1933, upstairsonthesquare.com

 

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.