Restaurant Review: Bondir Concord
When Jason Bond opened Bondir in a cozy Cambridge storefront nearly four years ago, it was as if a delicate wild creature had come to nest. It was a shy miracle: a heartfelt restaurant that not only bought the quirkiest ingredients from local farms, but also showcased them with a sincerity that shone through even complicated or stilted presentations. The dishes that worked had a simple clarity, helping you discover the sweet earthiness of a Gilfeather turnip, say, or the tenderness and subtle flavor of Mangalitsa pork.
In the years following Bondir’s debut, two things happened: The awkward, overly thought-out combinations that made the restaurant a mixed success at its start were lathed to an easy confidence that has made it permanently popular and permanently romantic. And Bond opened a second, triple-the-size Bondir in a gutted-and-rebuilt space in Concord with exposed brick, dried flowers on the walls, a big folk-art landscape, and a general New England quaintness heavy on the Americana.
A few months in, the new Bondir is just as earnest as the original, but with the awkward-to-graceful ratio much higher than it was in the early Cambridge days. The dishes that do work, though, are so sensitive and deft that they make me want to point every aspiring young chef to Bond’s back door in Concord, to spend a few months visiting farms and slaughterhouses with him and cooking in his showcase kitchen.
Any young chef would be seduced by the care that Bond gives every humble root vegetable in a first course of Chantenay carrot flan ($16/$30). The turnips, parsnips, carrots, and radishes come from the root cellar of a farm down the road, and each was individually diced, sautéed, or steamed to bring out its very essence. Triangles of pan-crisped teff polenta—a starch that Bond has perfected, allowing the tiny beads of grain to remain distinct within a soft and comforting whole—paired very nicely with the smooth, potently sweet ovals of carrot flan. This was a flawlessly executed dish, one that vegetarians might want to order a larger portion of: Most menu items are offered in both small and large sizes, allowing diners to sample many things in one meal. (Cambridge recently shifted away from this plan to offer a four-course $72 prix fixe, plus à la carte options in categories priced at $16, $18, and $29.)
The carrot flan is just one example of the small, specific epiphanies of flavor that Bond’s dishes, which change frequently, offer. Striped bass ($18/$32), poached in olive oil until it gained the succulence of cured tuna, was served with roasted spring Vidalia onion and fennel, both perfectly seasonal on the early-spring evening that I tried them. Cooked in Bond’s fancy Wood Stone oven, the roasted bulbs gained an intense flavor and the texture of plump dried apricots, though the Cara-Cara orange vinaigrette that coated them didn’t do enough to cut through the richness of the oily fish.
What was mostly so right on that plate—many components blending into a strong, focused, harmonious whole—too often didn’t coalesce on others, with numerous ingredients listed on the menu failing to register or show up at all. One example was the cranberry leather, hard to find on an otherwise pert winter salad ($14) containing two excellent, unfamiliar New England ingredients: gray Pearmain apples (a firm, fine-flavored dessert apple from Maine) and Prescott cheese, a creamy, cheddar-y variety from Robinson Farm, in Hardwick. The flavors of three featured ingredients in a celeriac-and-apple soup ($9)—celery leaves, usually domineering; green almond, always delicate to the point of invisibility; and muscat grapes—were overpowered by onion and cinnamon. There was no promised confit duck leg at all on a dish of roasted Rohan duck breast ($18/$32), though the red, venisonlike meat and braised Gilfeather turnip were both memorable enough (the kitchen had apparently run out of the confit). And pickled watermelon rind was diced to the point of disappearance in a dish of roasted beef strip loin paired with grilled Treviso lettuce ($18/$32), which was otherwise the strongest, most full-flavored entrée. This is the rare menu where less description is more—or at least leads to fewer letdowns.
There were also surprising missteps, like the “South Shore fishes” ($16/$30), a medley of sea creatures that Bond cooks separately to show his knowledge of, and care for, each one. Unlike the vegetables in the carrot flan, however, here all of the cooking techniques seemed similar, leading to textures that were mushy, with the exception of crisp, seared calamari tentacles. (Much better than the seafood were the thick, home-fry-like slices of heirloom Bintje potato, roasted with oil in that wood oven.)
Still, there are plenty of flavor revelations to go around. Desserts spotlight unusual ingredients like fresh muscat grapes, both in semifreddo and sorbet form. There are also unusual gelato flavors, such as pistachio-and-beach-rose, and a particularly good sorbet of Cavaillon melon mixed with the sweet, potent French dessert wine Pineau de Charentes.
To see if what I remembered so fondly from the original would help me understand the new Bondir, I paid a return visit to Cambridge. In order to focus fully on the Concord location, Bondir hired Marc Sheehan, a Menton alum, to oversee the Cambridge kitchen as its first chef de cuisine. It was an inspired choice: Bondir Cambridge was even better than I remembered it.
Here, flavors melded with comfortable ease, rather than with the strained nods of new acquaintances. Temperatures and textures were simply right, as if there were never a question they could be anything else. The simple wainscoting, few pieces of perfectly placed art, and raised brick hearth were as warmly inviting as always. Unlike in Concord, the mismatched china read as canny shabby chic, not grandmotherly. And the service was silken, not earnest and awkward. Yes, that seaweed bread they’ve served since day one is still strange, and nowhere near as nuttily substantial as a new, if unprettily named, warthog wheat bread with sprouted barley at the Concord outpost. But you need to try very hard to find fault with the food—and the place.
Ratcheting up the winsome charm may be too tall an order for anyone. And to be fair, grandmotherly Americana suits Concord. So where to take this grand new kitchen and expansive new Bondir? A bit more boldness, married with restraint, is what Bond might want to adopt to take advantage of his larger culinary arsenal. I like that he and Sheehan have honed Bondir Cambridge to seamless perfection. Only time will tell whether Bond can do the same with Concord.
Carrot flan • $16/$30
Olive oil–poached bass • $18/$32
Gray Pearmain apple Normande • $14
Assortment of sorbets • $9
Roasted beef strip loin • $18/$32
Bondir Concord, 24 Walden St., Concord, 978-610-6554, bondirconcord.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.