Restaurant Review: Vialé
When a new restaurant takes over an old one’s space, it’s usually no big deal. Restaurants close all the time. That’s the nature of the game. It’s better to have a new team trying new things in an old space than an endless “For Rent” sign, right? But the closure of two places last year set an unusually high bar for anyone taking over their leases. I’ve done my share of mourning over the closure of Gordon Hamersley’s eponymous bistro, of course. But last year also marked the departure of another important chef: Steve Johnson—himself an alum of Hamersley’s Bistro—who closed his Central Square stalwart Renedezvous to move to Rhode Island. Johnson’s exit caused less public fuss than Hamersley’s, but still generated plenty of grief from those of us who counted on Rendezvous for its warm professionalism and rock-solid reliability.
So naturally I went into Vialé, which opened in the Rendezvous space in October, with my antennae up for missteps and glitches (a constructive attitude, you might say). And during a first sampling of the long, mostly Italian menu, I did find them: blah food in which cream and salt trumped the flavor of primary ingredients; service that was uncertain. But a few weeks and two dinners later, I started warming up to what intends to be a very warm restaurant, with big portions of accessible food offered at accessible prices. I bonded with a tough, heart-of-gold server who handled two demanding parties—one tilting old and crotchety, one young and fidgety—with patience and humor. I saw a big, friendly menu start to come together and feel more assured. And I noticed that other neighborhood types who I was sure missed Rendezvous were loosening up, too—and coming back.
Vialé is the first solo venture of Greg Reeves, a local chef who trained with three formidable female cooks—Amanda Lydon and Susan Regis at UpStairs on the Square; and Barbara Lynch at B & G Oysters and the Butcher Shop. He also ran the kitchen for five years at the Central Square institution Green Street with his childhood friend Mark Young, now his business partner at Vialé. For their new endeavor, the two brought in Patrick Gaggiano—who started the noteworthy craft-cocktail program at Fairsted Kitchen—to run the bar, which occupies a significant portion of the room. The rest of the space is mostly unchanged from the Rendezvous days, with the exception of a new lit, abstract mural along the longest wall.
Reeves told me he was all set to return French bistro food to Cambridge at the former Chez Henri space, between Harvard and Porter squares, but when he lost out on the lease to Regis, he decided to pursue Italian in Central Square instead. That fact, coupled with Reeves’s formative training, have informed his opening menu: Italian-sounding dishes based on enough French technique to make many of them taste more the latter, with a kind of fearless richness.
This style was exemplified by a roasted marrow dish ($14)—a huge, Fred Flintstone bone plunked in the center of a plate barely big enough to hold it. It may have been listed as a “small plate,” but there was nothing small about it, served over fat brown nubs that turned out to be escargots out of the shell. Though the pairing sounds weird, it had some logic behind it: Garlic butter goes with both, and garlicky toast becomes exceptionally rich when spread with the marrow, which had just enough browning on the edges to make it more than the usual blubber. With a thick beer-battered onion ring on top, this was a fairly outrageous dish. It’s also one I’d have every time.
Reeves makes pasta dough from scratch, but his homemade versions need retooling, as they generally arrived undercooked: double- wide pappardelle with a salty, liquidy rabbit sauce ($14/$23); half-moon pansotti with a filling of milky homemade ricotta, served with kalamata olives, parsley purée, and charred broccolini (also $14/23). The latter was a dish that tasted straightforward Italian save for the al dente pasta that, as with the pappardelle, should have been served soft. Better was the imported bucatini, served properly al dente in a creamy sauce of goat cheese and roasted maitake mushrooms ($14/22) with toasted bread crumbs scattered across the top. Pillow-mint-shaped potato gnocchi, meanwhile, had exactly the right chewy softness, tossed in a wine-heavy Bolognese made with mild-tasting boar ($13/21). Reeves told me he thickened the sauce with puréed duck liver rather than cream, a trick he learned as chef at the Butcher Shop. It’s a good one.
Pizzas, based on the ever-worthy Al Forno grilled model, are less convincing. The thin crusts turned to crackers, and could have used more flavor development. By the third try I was getting used to the “charred margherita” ($11), painted with a thin adobo-brown sauce of heavily reduced grilled tomatoes that was more akin to jam. But with the sharply dry dough, it was closer to warm hardtack than pizza. A pie topped with fried calamari ($14) featured hot peppers and chili oil, which gave it more textural balance. Maybe come summer, Reeves will return to fresh tomatoes, and soften the dough a bit. We can hope, at least.
Reeves’s training is most evident in the “larger bites,” where he’s able to present big pieces of meat and fish that seem less bound to Italian cooking and more like hearty mains. Nicely black-edged, pink-centered slices of duck breast ($27) were masterful, the meat moist and almost imperceptibly smoked to give it depth, the pairing with parsnips and apple-currant mostarda both wintry and refreshing (though a kale chiffonade gave the dish a bit too much crunch). Reeves can get carried away with acid—a side of roasted beets with pickled mustard seeds and maple syrup ($6), for instance, had the sweet-sour flavor that made generations hate Harvard beets, and a salsa of finely diced Meyer-lemon rind with expertly grilled hanger steak ($25) tasted like straight citrus peel—but here it was in admirable equipoise.
I hope the duck stays on the menu, with different pairings, as well as the fried cauliflower ($7), with a sweet-salty sauce of white anchovy, golden raisins, and brown butter. The florets were blackened, with meaty, tender stalks that converted the cauliflower doubters at the table. We had to have a side of these at every meal. They seemed Italian, but Reeves’s take on Italian. So did the desserts, like a simple rice pudding ($7) with surprise crunchy bits of candied quince and candied almonds, and a torched, brûléed topping.
Approachable dishes where Reeves’s personality comes through will build the business Vialé is after: neighborhood regulars who want a familiar, comfortable place to come back to. Yes, Rendezvous is gone. But maybe you still can go home again.
Roasted bone marrow • $14
Bucatini • $14/$22
Duck breast • $27
Fried cauliflower • $7
502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-576-1900, vialecambridge.com.