Restaurant Review: Puritan & Company in Cambridge

Will Gilson attempts to fuse New England fare with modern technique—and, mostly, succeeds.

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Wagyu steak with “boiled dinner vegetables,” $29

The smoked-mackerel pâté ($7) did taste like a rustic take on a New England tradition: oily dark-meat fish (Spanish mackerel is the substitute for the New England bluefish Gilson uses in season) mixed with whipped crème fraîche and Greek yogurt. It’s freshened with Meyer lemon and a bit of chili pepper, and served on “hardtack” crackers. Seared scallops ($12), meanwhile, were nicely seared and naturally sweet, though the seasonal roasted-sweet-potato purée underneath was overwhelmed with salt.

In an inversion of the usual rule nowadays (in which small plates eclipse entrées in both emphasis and execution), main courses are the strongest part of the menu. Wagyu steak ($29), often a sop to the dullards who insist on a rare slab, was the best, with beef that was tender, fatty, and full of flavor. The version of pommes ana served alongside it was unexpectedly elegant: long slivers of potato layered with butter and pressed into triangular wedges, with the layers vertical rather than horizontal. The wedge was soft and buttery from the long roasting, but crisp on the outside from a plancha searing at the last minute. Gilson’s decision to foam the light béarnaise-like sauce on top, however, seemed silly and outmoded rather than an enhancement to the dish.

Chicken from the Canadian purveyor Giannone ($24) is brined and pressed to make slices of nicely flavored breast meat, but the real star is the drumstick, cooked in fat like confit, coated with cornstarch, and deep-fried. I preferred the chicken to the wood-roasted Muscovy duck ($27), but apparently other diners don’t—Gilson told me that D’Artagnan, his well-known purveyor, told him he’d gone through 800 ducks in three months. Certainly, the rendered skin and wood roasting make for superior meat, even if the vegetable garnish we had, a long tube of woody salsify with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, was best ignored.

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A stunning chocolate layer cake ($8) crafted by pastry chef Mike Geldart.

Despite my recollection of his seafood-heavy cooking two summers ago at Eat at Adrian’s, Gilson is better with meat than fish at Puritan: Slow-poached cod with mussels ($24) was dull and mealy, the whitish foamed ham broth an odd complement. Grilled cobia ($25), always a meaty and reliable fish, was okay, but the dramatic leaves of lightly wilted green escarole on the plate were far more memorable. Barley risotto ($17), though, was the best vegetarian main course I’ve had in memory, the barley first oven-toasted and then cooked in mushroom stock, finished with butter and Parmesan, and garnished with fresh marjoram. The portion was huge, the barley made nutty through toasting, and the stock, butter, and Parmesan a better binder than the usual starch from rice.

Desserts, by pastry chef Mike Geldart, are somewhat uncertain (his breads, perhaps reflecting his experience at Sel de la Terre, are more reliable), but the two chocolate options had satisfyingly deep flavor: The fruity, pleasantly acidic notes of a little puck of unpromisingly muddy chocolate fondant ($8) made you keep swiping it across your tongue, to fully savor them. And a chocolate cake ($8), made with chocolate from the San Francisco–based Tcho, is as pretty—a stack of tortelike layers with thinner layers of caramel cream—and sophisticated-looking as the other desserts were not. But then, you don’t go to Puritan for sophistication or fancy presentation, even if to your surprise that’s much of what you get. You go for enthusiasm, commitment to the local, and young talent—and you get a lot of that, too.

Puritan & Company, 1166 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-615-6195, puritancambridge.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.

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