Restaurant Review: Centre Street Café

With a new Italian menu and an overhauled space, a Jamaica Plain stalwart becomes a neighborhood favorite yet again.

centre street cafe

Arctic char with chili-laced clam broth is a delicate yet satisfying main course. (photograph by pj couture)

Some restaurants fit into a block as if they’ve always been there. Centre Street Café, as it happens, has long been a part of the fabric of Jamaica Plain. When I moved to J.P. more than a decade ago, it was already a neighborhood fixture, drawing long lines for its cult-favorite Sunday brunch.

Last summer, though, it briefly shut down, relaunching in November with the same name but a fresh idea and menu. Its new owners, David Doyle, Mari Perez-Alers, and Keith Harmon, had four years earlier turned a book-and-record store a mile down Centre Street into Tres Gatos, a tapas bar perfect for the shoppers drawn to the newly opened Whole Foods. The place managed to straddle the subtle social lines of an evolving J.P., with Spanish-Mediterranean fare sophisticated enough to attract the young families and creative types transforming that part of town, and prices reasonable enough not to scare off the protesters who had tried to block that Whole Foods from opening. I was always more impressed by Tres Gatos’s hospitality and the secure niche that it carved into the J.P. ecosphere than by its food. (To be fair, a new chef, Nevin Taylor, took over the kitchen and changed most of the menu last summer, and I haven’t tried it yet.)

For Centre Street 2.0, the owners have hired chef Brian Rae, who fits perfectly into the much more deliberately designed, but not self-conscious, restaurant. The interior is dressier than its previous iteration: dark-stained wood; white-enamel, pressed-tin panels on the wall that slide to reveal colorful Moorish art-nouveau-patterned tiles; and the now-inescapable industrial lights with Edison bulbs, plus some Danish-modern-looking chandeliers. Most important, Rae—who previously worked with Jody Adams at Rialto—makes food that would bring me back wherever it was served, let alone in a welcoming, comfortable place a seven-minute walk from where I live. Naturally, I’m already crossing my fingers he doesn’t get lured away.

centre street cafe

The warm, welcoming space features Moorish-style tilework and dark-stained wood. (photograph by pj couture)

Rae’s calling card is a style of cuisine that could be called modern Italian–New American, by which I mean classic Italian food filtered through the sunlit lens of iconic Bay Area restaurants such as Zuni Café and Chez Panisse, with streamlined salad-and-vegetable-centric plates, and a respect for the biggish protein-carb-veg entrées that New American cuisine never lost sight of. Wisely, Rae also has a few take-it-to-the-bank dishes on the menu: meatballs, risotto, and amatriciana-style bucatini with mozzarella, guanciale, and a killer tomato sauce that I fought friends for every time we ordered it.

Rae’s talent for giving greens a California sparkle makes salads some of the most reliable items on the menu. Even when he uses a lot of garlic, as he does on a caesar-style romaine salad ($8) with pickled cauliflower and torn, crisp, very garlicky croutons, or in the salsa verde beneath grilled asparagus served over arugula with a fried quail egg on top ($8), it’s so fresh and not bitter (as heavy garlic so often is) that you forgive it. The salad I fell in love with featured sliced strips of bresaola—an air-cured beef much silkier than the usual near-leather version—with shaved fennel, pear, currants, almonds, and gorgonzola in a lemony vinaigrette ($9). It sounded like a composed dish fit for a ladies’ lunch, but was saved with extra sharpness and heft.

Rae’s other “apps,” from the ubiquitous small-plate section of the menu, were less consistent. Fried arancini ($10) stuffed with mushrooms, cauliflower, and Gaeta olives were too oily to enjoy—as, on a lesser scale, were the fried polenta triangles served with one of the mains. But I’d gladly copy at home his swordfish conserva ($13), cooked in oil and then mashed with a fork until the texture resembles that of a bluefish pâte. The standout appetizer is those meatballs ($11), first roasted and then seared to order with that terrific tomato sauce, which is packed with hand-riced plum tomatoes and cooked just until the flavors meld.

The menu describes the “apps” as “medio” portioned, but in fact they’re more like “piccolo.” Many portions, in fact, are oddly gauged: The half-sizes of pasta are fairly high in price, at $13 to $15, but seem measly next to their full-size counterparts (which, to be fair, are nearly twice the price).

You’ll want the more-generous portions. The risotto and bucatini showed terrific technique, which Rae says he picked up from watching Adams and his own Italian relatives. Risotto, with its copious amount of butter and cheese, typically causes palate fatigue (at least for me) after two bites. Rae’s version ($23) was warm, fresh, and fully flavored, the rice tinted green by a nettle-basil pesto. Some pastas veered toward stodgy, like the buckwheat lasagna ($14/$26) with cabbage, potato, kale, and fontina, a particularly heavy take on pizzoccheri, an already stick-to-the-ribs dish from northern Lombardy. But when they’re pared down, they can be just what you need to take the edge off a difficult day.

centre street cafe

The bucatini, served amatriciana-style, is one of chef Brian Rae’s specialties. (photograph by pj couture)

Mains were the least consistent, especially a chicken Parm ($24) that again showed Rae’s tendency to skew heavy: The thickly breaded, brined breast, waterlogged and salty, was smothered with cream-filled burrata, an unnecessarily fussy alternative to plain mozzarella. Spice-rubbed butcher’s steak ($27) twice arrived stringy, somewhat mysterious as it was cooked only till pink. Rae’s lighter touch is the surer one. Slow-roasted Arctic char ($25) was delicate yet authoritatively seasoned, in a clam broth flavored with roasted red peppers and Fresno chilies. Paired with roasted fingerlings and sautéed broccoli rabe, the dish was unusually satisfying.

Butter and salt levels in the same dishes varied by night, as did the temperatures. Desserts, in true Italian tradition, were afterthoughts, though a flourless olive oil–polenta cake ($8) with pistachio sorbet and a blood-orange salad was a refreshing ending. But those small issues certainly won’t keep the crowds away. The truth is, Rae doesn’t have to make distinguished food to meet the needs of the space and the neighborhood. What he does need to do is serve polished tweaks on what you’d make at home, food you could happily eat twice a week.

And plenty of people have already made the restaurant a second home. By the time I got around to dining at the new Centre Street Café, I had to reserve tables at the times they had available, even if I wanted to eat at 5:30. Every time I ate there I saw people I knew from the area. My goal is to find eateries that turn neighborhoods into villages, places in which the diners all know one another, or at least nod with cordial familiarity. Centre Street Café has accomplished that. I encourage would-be restaurant owners to line up and take notes.

Menu Highlights

Meatballs • $11
Bucatini • $13/$24
Spring risotto • $22
Arctic char • $25

669A Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-9217,

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.