Restaurant Review: Sycamore in Newton Centre
A little restraint is all that this Newton Centre restaurant needs to become this critic’s next great love.
A new style of restaurant is taking hold in Boston, and all over the nation. Its key traits: meticulously sourced meat and produce (that aren’t proclaimed all over the menu); respect for what a region grows and attention to its local traditions and history (again, without dwelling on it); menus designed for sharing; an emphasis on imaginative cocktails and craft beers; and hip servers who demonstrate curiosity and commitment to the restaurant’s ethos.
One of the latest exemplars of the form, Sycamore, isn’t even located in the city—it’s in Newton Centre, where the rent is less exorbitant, the liquor licenses are easier to procure, and the competition isn’t as thick on the ground. “Now we don’t have to go to the South End!” one diner happily proclaimed to a server on my last visit there. Nope—not anymore. Here, suburban denizens can finally get bistro fare and craft cocktails that are as good as anything they’d find in town.
Bar manager Scott Schoer, a genial self-described “hospitalitarian,” will, like a diagnostician, be glad to assemble cocktails tailored to your mood. An invention I’d nominate to take the place of the cosmopolitan is his “Scosmopolitan” ($11), which features house-made blood-orange vodka and the bitter and more-interesting Aperol in place of Cointreau or triple sec. Another standout is the “Persephone” ($10), a swirl of tequila, pomegranate juice, lime, and frothed egg white. It had that sweet-tart balance I always look for in a cocktail, and was genuinely refreshing—as was his version of my favorite summer drink, the Pimm’s Cup ($9), defined by the juice from muddled and strained cucumbers.
Chef-owner David Punch and co-chef Lydia Reichert, meanwhile, have designed a menu that showcases their enthusiasm for and love of locavore flavor. But it’s just a bit out of focus at Sycamore, as it was at Ten Tables Cambridge (a comfortable outpost of the Jamaica Plain favorite), which Punch opened, cooked at, and co-owned. Everything there was pleasant, but nothing was particularly original or distinctive. And at his new restaurant, Punch is trying too hard to satisfy everyone, which means he’s never quite confident enough to let something stand on its own. It was this lack of focus that kept me from falling in anything more than deep like with his food. But boy, did I fall into deep like fast.
I think it was the duck board ($60 for two people). A temporary menu addition, it exemplified the nose-to-tail style of cooking that’s so popular these days. Duck was an easy placeholder, Punch explained, for the large whole animals he and Reichert intended from the start to prepare in various ways and serve on long boards for two or more diners to enjoy. The duck was such a success that it stayed put for three months—until the evening we ordered it, when our server told us this would be its last night. Pity! It was a virtuoso display of the different parts of the bird.
The next animal I ate that was showcased on the board, pig ($60 for two people), was more hit-and-miss. I was glad to hear from our server that the Tamworth pig had eaten apples from the fruit farm where it was raised. But the grilled chop, though an enormous portion of fine, whitish meat, was so bland it could have passed for veal, and the smoked-pork sausage and blood pudding were so overseasoned that it was hard to detect much besides salt and smoke in the former, and fragrant mace in the latter. The accompanying cabbage slaw with Peruvian chili paste was an interesting idea, but too heavy on the salt. There was one standout on the board: pucks of poached and shredded pig’s head coated with panko crumbs and deep-fried. Plenty of these disks are served at pig-friendly restaurants around town, and Sycamore’s are the lightest, sweetest, most purely meaty I’ve had.