Restaurant Review: Evoo in Cambridge

The location may have changed, but chef Peter McCarthy’s cuisine still keeps diners on their toes.

Dining Out Evoo

Photograph by Keller + Keller

It takes guts to open a restaurant like Evoo — an idiosyncratic, chef-owned place with a style all its own. When it debuted 12 years ago, chef Peter McCarthy and his wife, Colleen, were taking a big chance, hoping customers would still go for the sort of freewheeling fusion that marked mid-’80s cuisine, when chefs were jumbling southwestern, pan-Asian, and French flavors with a kind of cheerful disregard. In 1998 McCarthy’s embrace of this type of cooking seemed retro, but his commitment to buying as much local produce and meat as he could was far ahead of the times.

[sidebar]For the next decade or so, Evoo stayed the course. And the couple’s customers stayed with them, coming regularly to the spare, handsome, welcoming restaurant on the Cambridge-Somerville line. The McCarthys also showed their business savvy. In 2004 they opened Arlington’s Za, serving crowd-pleasing, chock-full-o’-toppings pizzas to very happy patrons.

Now they’ve relocated Evoo, paired with another outpost of Za, to big new quarters in the middle of Kendall Square. (I suspect that Evoo survives in part because of its sister restaurant, which has quickly found a young, lively clientele that needed someplace just like Za.)

I’m glad the pair has flourished, even though McCarthy’s brand of fusion, however cheerful, is too jumbled for my taste. There’s a careening variety of influences on the plate; you’re never sure if the next bite is going to be Korean, French, Indian, or Japanese. His packed plates are reminiscent of the old Todd English–style excess, and the literal piling of food is reminiscent of long-outmoded vertical cuisine. But McCarthy knows how to cook. He likes big flavors. And when they all come together, you remember why the English style meant lines out the door: You almost feel a rush, feel powerfully satisfied, and find yourself devouring enormous portions.

I’m also glad that Bostonians now have easier access to McCarthy’s quirky cuisine, particularly the beef. When it comes to steak at Evoo, you don’t almost feel a rush — it is a rush. Take parsley-and-garlic-studded beef tenderloin served with sour-cream-and-butter-loaded whipped potatoes and grilled portobellos ($31), a dish McCarthy has had on the menu since day one. His beef may not be local (too expensive), but it’s luscious. The same goes for the bavette steak from Vermont, grilled and accompanied by double-cooked fried potatoes smoked between fryings ($25). This is Big Umami, and it’s irresistible. Whether the sauce is orange béarnaise or habanero hollandaise, you forget all you’ve ever heard about cholesterol and dig in.

Red meat, hot sauces, fried stuff — that’s where McCarthy is most on his game. Often, though, the piling-on of components means incoherent dishes and uneven execution. This is the danger when a menu is this long and changes almost nightly. In addition to three starters and three main dishes that are always on hand, Evoo features a lengthy, hyperseasonal “home-grown menu.” It’s a good deal at $38 for three courses, or $55 paired with wine; these items are also available à la carte ($25 for entrées, $10 for appetizers).

Of the regular offerings, the best starters showcase McCarthy’s frying prowess, especially three spring rolls ($10.50) with two dipping sauces, and cornmeal-crusted fried oysters ($11) that are so good they don’t even need the goat cheese fondue with which they’re served (though I see the point of the tart, salty apple-bacon salsa that also comes with the dish). In addition to that stellar tenderloin, ever-present mains include “Duck, Duck, Goose,” a signature trio of very nice roasted goose breast, decent (if unmemorable) duck foie gras, and an undercrisped duck confit in a sherry-ginger sauce ($28).

With the seasonal dishes, it’s somewhat luck of the draw. Fish is particularly chancy. Bass one night was undercooked, making it seem fatty and textureless, and was paired with an overspiced shredded-carrot salad and a dull, chewy whole-grain farro ($25). It brought back bad memories of earnest but awful 1970s gourmet health food. When I later asked the chef (neutrally) about the dish over the phone, he laughed. “Oh, we changed that,” he said.

But McCarthy’s big-flavor approach can work in surprising places, like a sweet potato croquette entrée ($25): a huge fried brick topped with cheddar and served with homemade dill pickles. The croquette was substantial, while the texture was light and a bit grainy, something like Lebanese kibbe; the flavor was nicely oniony and complemented by root vegetables braised with peppery adobo. And the kitchen excels at pickles — another area in which Evoo has always been ahead of the pack, preserving the season’s bounty and not shying from hot peppers and strong flavors.

McCarthy was also putting offal and charcuterie on the menu long before they got trendy, but the results are mixed. A crisp pig’s-head terrine ($10), with pork from Round the Bend Farm in South Dartmouth, featured well-shredded meat but was unnecessarily breaded, deep-fried, and leaden; a bright pea greens salad from the next farm over, the renowned Eva’s Garden, couldn’t counteract it. More Round the Bend Farm pork was shown, also not at its finest, in a dish of adobo-braised shoulder (the best part of the dish), cilantro-jalapeño grilled chop, and slices of too-heavily spiced, too-pink loin ($25), all of it served over mayo-drenched coleslaw and potato salad. It was a gucky plate. Desserts, too, lack focus, like tarragon-infused golden beet–orange sorbet with fennel sugar cookies ($9). It’s best to play it safe with a warm chocolate truffle cake ($9), presented in a seductively blowtorch-browned pool of marshmallow cream.

Luck of the draw it may often be. But there’s that steak, and the chef’s overall skills, and the longtime servers who treat everyone like regulars. And when McCarthy shows elegant restraint and pinpoints something briefly in-season, a dish can be fairly perfect. An appetizer of pan-fried Maryland shad roe with homemade lamb bacon lardons, Eva’s Garden pea greens, and addictive waffle potato chips ($10) was a knockout, the roe crisp on the outside and soft within, the bacon an ideal and not-overpowering counterpoint. Bluefish baked in mustard glaze with golden-beet risotto, pickled green tomatoes, and onion rings ($25) was every bit as great as the tenderloin.

In its new space, as with its last, Evoo is worth the gamble. Trust your luck, or hedge your bets by ordering the always-available menu items, and you can be rewarded with a jackpot meal.

350 Third St., Cambridge, 617-661-3866,