Dining Out: Trade

TRADE IS AN IMPROBABLE success. It’s a big urban brasserie in a funky, beautifully renovated old brick building opened by a high-profile chef and her ambitious young partners. Why improbable? Not because of the talent. Since opening Rialto nearly two decades ago, chef Jody Adams has made it into one of the most successful restaurants in Cambridge. She’s also written a book. Her partners, Sean Griffing and Eric Papachristos, may not have her exalted résumé, but they’ve both got Boston restaurant experience (Papachristos bought and revived Victoria’s Diner, and Griffing was Rialto’s general manager).

[sidebar]No, it’s improbable because Trade is located in a part of the Financial District that seems devoid of foot traffic, or any traffic at all in the evening. But Trade is a huge, happy hit nonetheless. That it does a brisk lunch business is no shock—it’s next to the Federal Reserve and South Station, and across the Greenway from dozens of office buildings. But I was surprised to see it so busy at all four of my dinners there. Each time there was a crowd at the big bar area, with its neat iron-and-wood industrial-era stools and reclaimed-pine tables and countertops, both of which afford a view of the pizza oven. Here, the dinner trade starts early.

The dining room, too, was packed — and noisy. (Window treatments, since added to the two-story windows, now help keep the sound in check.) The noise was the only thing keeping me from saying, “If you like Rialto, you’ll love Trade.” And even though I could barely hear myself or my guests, I confess that I actually like Trade better. As I sampled the menu, it seemed as if Adams and her longtime Rialto associate Andrew Hebert, who is Trade’s executive chef, kicked back, took stock of the cuisines and ingredients they’d always wanted to play with, and played. In fact, that’s exactly what Hebert says they did, and with a couple of exceptions, the results are pretty terrific.

Take the “flatbreads,” which are one of Trade’s signature offerings. (For the most part, they’re actually more like pizzas. The team here seems to want to take liberties with the menu categories.) I recommend ordering one, if only to try the dough. Hebert told me that he and Adams spent a few days in Seattle working with the maker of the Wood Stone gas oven they bought, learning to apply the manufacturer’s techniques to a dough recipe they’d developed. The resulting crust rivals Picco’s as one of my favorites in town. It’s at its best topped with just rosemary, ricotta salata, and sea salt ($11), though it’s also excellent when rolled thin like lavash, dusted with sesame seeds, and cut into crackers, which are served as the base for a great appetizer of seared chicken livers with radishes and kumquat ($9).

I found most of the other pizzas — er, flatbreads — needlessly heavy, including the four-cheese version with fresh tomatoes, basil, and arugula ($13), and the one topped with mushrooms, fig, Gorgonzola, sage pesto, and walnuts ($16). An exception was the lamb sausage version with eggplant, Manchego, peppers, and garlic yogurt ($15; shown at top). I’d eat that sausage and peppers on pretty much anything.

More ground lamb appears in the chili-flake-spiced ragu of rigatoni and provolone ($22). The dish is wonderfully browned in that oven, and so good you might scan the menu for more pastas. You won’t find any. Hebert says that he and Adams deliberately avoided loading the menu with pastas, so as not to look like they were doing the same thing they did at Rialto. It’s wise that they steer clear of handmade pasta — everybody does it, and it’s almost never as satisfying as what you get from a box, especially when it’s done like the rigatoni.

Photos by Michael Piazza