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.

By | Boston Magazine |
sycamore newton centre

The vegetarian-friendly potato-leek gratin at Sycamore. (Photos by Angela Coppola)

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.

sycamore newton centre

Beignets with milk jam, $8

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.

sycamore newton centre

Pig board for two, $60

sycamore newton centre

Chicken breast and leg confit, $23

Meat, it seems, is what Punch and Reichert do best. A daube of beef ($26) with dried porcini and prunes, served with Chantenay carrots and parsnip purée, was every bit as deep-flavored, comforting, and old-fashioned as it sounds—the kind of straight-ahead stew you don’t get often enough in restaurants (maybe because most chefs don’t have the taste to call Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France their favorite cookbook, as Punch does). And few home cooks who use the book have the patience to individually brown every cube of meat, as Punch told me Reichert does. It’s a feat anyone who’s made Julia Child’s beef bourguignon will recognize as a labor of love.

Chicken breast rubbed with sumac, sesame, and wild thyme was served with a duck-fat-poached confit leg and root vegetables sautéed with the intensely flavored golden jelly from the bottom of a confit jar ($23). It was as good a chicken dish as I know. This, along with the beef, is the kind of main course that can keep a restaurant running for years. Even a vegetarian entrée offered the same decadent comfort: Potato gratin ($21) in a green-garlic-and-leek-infused cream came topped with an umami-rich mushroom ragout powered by red wine, miso, and mushroom stock.

sycamore newton centre

Co-chef Lydia Reichert puts the finishing touch on the pig board for two.

The problem is relief—the dance of intensity and refreshment that the cocktail menu achieves, but the dinner menu does not. The need to pack heavy flavor into every dish seems to be a frequent symptom of the nose-to-tail cook. Thus a “farm greens salad” ($9) with fresh lettuce and thinly sliced radish was weighed down with toasted hazelnuts, dried pear, and a slice of Iggy’s baguette thickly spread with honey-tarragon goat cheese. The three vegetable “sides” were oily powerhouses: asparagus grilled with smoked pepper, dried arbol chilis, green garlic, and uneven squares of oven-crisped pancetta ($7); kale slow-cooked with garlic confit and gratineed with grated pecorino and bread crumbs ($6); and little florets of hard-seared cauliflower with chili, garlic, golden raisins, capers, pine nuts, and sherry vinegar ($6). They felt more like main features than complements.

Simplicity returns in the desserts, particularly in a pot de crème ($9) that was really a plain chocolate pudding. It was less dense than a traditional pot de crème, but pure and good (bypass the accompanying whipped cream with banana purée, and the homemade peanut brittle, for the biggest hit of chocolate). A bowl of greengage-plum preserves served with an almond financier ($9), meanwhile, was so full of fresh-fruit flavor that we begged for another helping. Perhaps predictably, the best dessert by far was deep-fried: beignets with milk jam ($8). The servers and the chef love to mention that these crispy delights are from a recipe by cook Kelly Fernandes, who beat Punch in a “beignet-off” the kitchen conducted before opening. Indeed, they were easily better than anything I tried on a recent trip to New Orleans—so airy they almost disappeared as I bit them, perfectly dry, and with a sugar-and-spice dusting that added just enough sand to keep the texture interesting. Everyone’s putting fresh-fried doughnuts on their dessert menu. No one’s doing them better.

All Sycamore needs now is a little fine-tuning. I’m still ready to fall in love.

Sycamore, 755 Beacon St., Newton Centre, 617-244-4445, sycamorenewton.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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