Restaurant Review: Parsnip in Cambridge

Real estate mogul Gerald Chan resurrects a storied Harvard Square space. The results? A luxurious throwback that’s as starchy as its namesake.

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Veal tenderloin rolled in rosemary ash. / Photograph by Jim Brueckner

What if your favorite club changed ownership, style, look, even flavor? Would you return? That answer would likely depend upon the degree of continuity.

Two Boston icons, UpStairs on the Square and Locke-Ober, have both recently reopened after long absences, both with new names and under new ownership. Lolita Cocina’s Chris Jamison and Mark Malatesta have reinvented part of the historical Locke-Ober space as Yvonne’s, an explosion of antlers and gilt and velvet—the old décor on Molly. Its menu seems just as manic, bounding among southern small bites, stone-fired pitas, and mammoth bovine feasts. And the crowd? About 30 years younger. The owners have consciously moved on from the same old—emphasis on old—members of the club.

Parsnip is the opposite. Here the nail-polish pinks and riotous, feminine whimsy of UpStairs have been replaced with cool, neutral grays. What’s left: the marvelously high ceiling of the main floor, with its views of Winthrop Park and JFK Street; two sober, discreet Juliet balconies; and the porthole-like windows of the upstairs bar. It’s quiet extravagance, bedecked in ’50s-era chandeliers and Pollock-esque Abstract Expressionist paintings by a physician friend of the billionaire owner, Gerald Chan, who has been buying up properties all over the square.

Whereas UpStairs gave you a warm, lipsticky hug when you walked through the door—from the waitstaff to the open-armed owners, Mary-Catherine Deibel and Deborah Hughes—Parsnip is sedate, formal, and on first impression seems to have had every bit of fun squeezed out of it. Yet it’s calm, with enough space between tables to allow for real conversation.

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Gingerbread sticky-toffee pudding. / Photograph by Jim Brueckner

Though Parsnip’s vibe is starkly different from its predecessor’s, the patrons haven’t changed one bit. Unlike Yvonne’s, which was clearly glad to shed its Brahmin fossils, Parsnip isn’t looking for a different demographic—and indeed, it’s attracting the same crowd as before: Harvard types, and the trust-fund liberals of Cambridge who, apparently, stick to their tightly bound rotation of Rialto, Harvest, and now Parsnip. One night, Deval Patrick was sitting with what appeared to be a war council at a long table facing the marble gas fireplace. Many nights, Chan himself, a relentlessly modest and charming man, hosts salonlike dinners at that same table or others nearby.

As with UpStairs, then—as, really, with every restaurant where Harvard deans and donors flock—it won’t be the food that brings the club members back. Yet Parsnip is actually offering something exotic in today’s dining landscape: Continental cuisine based on French classics. Its British chef, Peter Quinion, has been cooking in professional kitchens, in swanky private homes, and on sumptuous estates since the early 1980s. Neither he nor Chan has heard, or believed, the reports of fine dining’s death knell. (I don’t believe it, either, despite the closing of Clio; Deuxave is thriving because of its fine-dining trappings, and Café ArtScience was built around fine French food, albeit in a modernist guise.) If you’ve always wondered what it’s like to dine in a luxurious London restaurant or Hampshire manor house, here’s your chance.

What is the food like? Vaguely beige, at least in the middle of winter and sourced from within 200 miles of Boston. There’s something immaculate and buttoned-down about the food. Everything is plated in pretty shapes and patterns that would be at home on chic fabrics. The tailored presentation can blind you to the fact that some of the glossy, burgundy-burnished sauces, for example, are strictly classic French reductions you seldom see anymore. And though many of these components are prettier to look at separately than they are to eat, several dishes come together brilliantly.

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Parsnip’s grand dining room. / Photograph by Jim Brueckner

Quinion’s best dish is a perfect example: veal medallions ($38) cooked to a rosy beige and served atop sunchoke purée, oyster mushrooms (more beige), and a juniper jus. Veal is politically incorrect, and prohibitively expensive—I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen it on a menu outside of a chop—but Quinion makes a persuasive case. The three little rounds of meat were tender, their leanness underlined by a densely flavored, long-reduced French veal stock. Lamb noisettes ($38) with dauphinoise potato, garlic, and rosemary also speak to a just-the-cream indulgence that has likewise fallen out of favor in a nose-to-tail world that prizes offal and off cuts over the plutocrat loin. The other entrées, including sole with lobster tortellini ($30)—the pasta softly resilient and nicely homemade; the sauce américaine, with reduced lobster stock and butter—are equally unapologetic. This is luxury dining, the kind that begs for a good claret, and maybe a cognac nightcap.

And luxury is what you’ll remember here, along with the just-so presentation. Few dishes stand out, hindered as they are by execution that can be as mushy and disjointed as the monkfish with tarragon crumbs, Meyer lemon, and escargot ($32), which a guest of mine mistook for sole (the actual sole, served over tortellini, was firmer and better). Desserts fade, too, other than a Twinkie-shaped piece of sticky-toffee pudding ($11) alluringly coated in a caramel sauce that lends it a Yodel-like sheen.

The most vivid food by far is served at the upstairs bar, a room as plush as the main dining room, yet far more intimate and fun. The offerings are limited, often fried, and almost exclusively English in anatomy—particularly salt- and- vinegar “chips” that not only had crisp, nearly blackened edges, but were also a great deal ($3 for a generous amount). All they were missing was fried haddock, which would have made for a very classy fish and chips. Lamb kebab ($15) was a bargain-priced, bite-size demonstration of the care Quinion takes when buying and presenting proteins: rare, tender cubes, served hot off the grill and vibrantly flavored with cumin and whipped goat cheese. The bar is what Chan clearly wants all of Parsnip to be—a welcoming hub in the square. Maybe he and his chef can bring some of that looser, still-skillful energy to the somewhat starchy downstairs. Until they do, it will stay a stately anomaly: dining for Downton Abbey descendants, or people who wish they were.

★ ★

91 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-714-3206,

Menu Highlights

Veal tenderloin, $38
Noisettes of lamb, $38
Gingerbread sticky-toffee pudding, $11

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food.

★★★★ Extraordinary  |  ★★★ Generally Excellent  |  ★★ Good  |  ★ Fair  |  (No Stars) Poor