Dining Out: Out of the Shadows

Caffè Umbra
1395 Washington Street, Boston
Chef: Laura Brennan

“Nobody's doing that anymore,” I thought when I scanned Laura Brennan's opening menu at Caffè Umbra. I expected neighborhood-bistro fare from Brennan, given the rustic Italian she came by from both her Italian mother's family and her early experience cooking at Michela's. Or maybe she'd want to carry forward the New American plates she sent out during her five years as head chef of the big, trendy, and successful Mercury Bar. I was startled by the style she chose: solid, gently stylish French bourgeois cooking with touches of '70s-era nouvelle cuisine. Everything made sense when I saw the dedication at the top of the menu to Madeleine Kamman, the famously combative and inspirational teacher who launched several generations of cooks at her Boston-area cooking school, Modern Gourmet, and then at Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. It's a style with clear flavors underlined by technique, thought, and plenty of butter.

I shouldn't have been so surprised. Brennan has always been her own woman, and a stubborn one at that. For years she alternated jobs cooking in various restaurants, running her own catering companies, and working as a personal chef. She helped pioneer a fresher take on Italian and Mediterranean cuisine alongside Jody Adams and Michela Larson, now of Rialto and blu, and spoke out in favor of local producers and sane, healthful, and good-tasting food before it was de rigueur. When would she get her own restaurant? Those of us who have long followed her with admiration and a little wariness — she's opinionated and articulate, and has a temper — almost gave up wondering.

“I looked at a million restaurants,” Brennan told me when I spoke with her after several Umbra dinners. The search, she said by way of explaining the delay, went on for three years. The location she found could hardly be better: the stretch of Washington Street that suddenly — after years of promises and digging and dirt pavement and no Silver Line — is taking brick-paved, lamp-lit, kiosked shape. It promises to very soon become a restaurant row as hot as Tremont Street around Hamersley's Bistro, what with new and hopping neighbors like Gallia, Pho Republique, and the revived Red Fez.

Caffè Umbra (Latin for shadow) sits in the “shadow” of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which is right across the street and squarely in view of the restaurant's huge plate-glass windows. (On the nights I visited, floodlights illuminated not just the cathedral's façade but also demonstrators, unprepared to forgive Cardinal Law, holding “Bernie the Pimp” placards.) The restaurant is a big, squarish space with a generous bar area and lots of room between the polished tables, plus comfortable banquettes along the exposed-brick walls. Brennan, with her independence and frugality, did without the services of a restaurant architect or decorator, and, unfortunately, it shows: The design seems haphazard and ungainly. But it's a comfortable, pleasant place to be, and in the long run that's what will count.

The bulk of energy and budget are aimed at food and service, which are under the surprising supervision of James Becker — himself an original and experienced chef whose former Catalan restaurant in Somerville, Rauxa, is mourned by many, including me. Now he is turning his talents to running the front of the house, and they appear to be equally abundant; already, there's a core of repeat diners. The reasonable prices help bring them back and make the restaurant a frequent weeknight option. Entrées mostly hover around $20, a very good value for generous portions of carefully made food.

I found two or three modest masterpieces — pretty impressive for an opening menu. One is listed as aioli with young vegetables ($7), and it's a deceptively simple description of an exemplary dish. The new potatoes had the friable, slightly waxy, delicate flavor that only really young, freshly dug potatoes have; the pencil asparagus tasted wild; and the beets, carrots, and artichokes were cooked to a perfect degree of tenderness without being (wrongly, I say) al dente. The aioli seemed so subtle that I wasn't entirely surprised when Brennan told me it contained no garlic at all. It was simply a lemony mayonnaise made with coddled rather than raw eggs to avoid any raw-egg risk. (She doesn't have anything against garlic, Brennan says: She's just sick of people using too heavy a hand with it, something the French don't do.) The absence of garlic and the firmer egg resulted in a smooth texture and rounded flavor, allowing the fragile tarragon, chervil, and other fines herbes to stand out.

The chicken liver mousse ($7) is one of those simple spreads that takes you back to France as surely as if you were holding a divining rod. Poached in butter and steeped with Armagnac, it's molded in a triangular terrine pan, but is so smooth and unctuous you reach for a knife and the bread. I always tell foie gras beginners, “It doesn't taste like liver. Chicken liver mousse is a cheaper, saner, more humane way to have a seemingly liverless experience.” (I'd like to say healthier, but unless you're an early adopter of the new Dr. Atkins-was-right movement, that one is pretty hard to back up.)

Of the main courses, I was most impressed by another classic no one thinks to bother with, especially not from scratch: vol-au-vent filled with seared scallops and parsnip butter ($21). Amazingly, and to great effect, the kitchen makes the puff pastry itself, rather than buying the frozen Pepperidge Farm kind, as many high-toned restaurants do. Brennan includes a layer of parsnip purée spiked with Corsican honey vinegar, which heightens the sweetness of the scallops and adds a trace of acid. It's her new-old take on classic cuisine at its best: a few components that speak in very civilized colloquy, and with a final effect that's lush but not overbearing.

Not all the dishes have this sure touch or balance. The tartine of asparagus on brioche with béchamel, smoked ham, and cabbage salad ($8) had a bit too much of everything, especially the (homemade and good) brioche. The Roquefort toasts served with the chicken liver mousse would have been better as plain toast points, and an entrée of skate with purée of cauliflower and smoked bacon ($20) was monochromatic in both flavor and color. Most unexpected was the pasta I tried. A special of spaghettini puttanesca ($19) was served with a sauce featuring something I love — flakes of fresh tuna poached in oil, rendering them beautifully rich and full of flavor (and actually tasting of tuna, unlike so many of the pepper-seared slabs doled out around town). But the pasta itself was stiff and seemingly seared beforehand, as if in a Chinese noodle dish, and it blended not at all with the sauce. The risotto with whipped ricotta, peas, lemon confit, and bacon ($14) not only included one flavor too many but was also impenetrably rich and practically pasty.

Many of the desserts (all are $8), from pastry chef Ron Roy, seemed insufficiently focused in flavor. The sweet fennel bread pudding with caramel espresso sauce, though blandly sweet, did have a nice sauce that pleased several groups of diners. And the almond-crusted lemon curd tart was a sunny, yolky, yellow wedge of scalloped-sided bliss — the curd citrusy but not too sour and the shell like an adult graham-cracker crust, crunchy with toasted ground almonds.

It made me pine for France, however they treat you there. Luckily, there's no need to take the Silver Line to Logan, assuming it actually connects there someday. They treat you very nicely at Caffè Umbra, and wide Washington Street might just shape up to be worthy of a latter-day Boulevard Haussmann.