Restaurant Review: A World-Famous Chef Checks into a Harvard Square Hotel

Bay State native Mark Ladner has come home to open Bar Enza. Does his legendary lasagna travel, too?

Chef Mark Ladner’s famous lasagna. / Photo by Linda Campos

Look, I don’t know who’s calling the shots at the Charles Hotel, and frankly it’s none of my damned business. I’m just a simple food guy. On matters of intra-hospitality backroom intrigue, I stay as neutral as Switzerland, you know, used to. What I can tell you is last April, after a five-year run, Benedetto, Michael Pagliarini’s acclaimed ristorante (we liked it, too: three stars in 2017), was out. A few months later, Bar Enza, a “neo-trattoria” by the Lyons Group—the folks behind Scampo, Rochambeau, Sonsie, and several popular Fenway haunts—was in, rocking a menu of spruced-up Italian crowd-pleasers.

Before we go on, it’s probably worth pausing to unpack “crowd-pleaser,” a loaded term, for sure. There’s no hard-and-fast way to determine, for instance, whether the late Benedetto’s strascinati with Ossabaw pork sausage and treviso was any more or less likely to please the proverbial crowd than, say, the new spot’s hulking “meatball gigante” ($29), made with beef, pork, veal, and barbecue brisket purchased from the Smoke Shop, on a plate of mashed potatoes. It’s subjective. You know it when you see it. Bar Enza’s hit-parade-stocked menu? I see it.

So where were we? Right. So the Charles Hotel replaces Benedetto with a crowd-pleasing Italian spot. Fair enough. They’ve got a business to run. But here’s the twist: The guy they get to do the calamari, Caesar, and prime rib is none other than legendary chef Mark Ladner, the Belmont native who cut his teeth at Olives back in its wow years, moved to New York, and spent the next 25 years becoming one of the biggest names on the emergent Modern Italian scene—first as Mario Batali’s deputy at Babbo and Lupa, then as head chef of Del Posto, where the New York Times found his cooking so refined, inventive, and of-the-moment that it awarded four stars to an Italian restaurant (gasp!) for the first time in three decades.

The good news about Ladner’s newest stomping ground: It turns out that hotel-friendly Italian food can hit above its pay grade when a rock-star chef is running the show. In fact, once I got over the shock of seeing a culinary hero apply his cooking chops to, well, cooking chops, it got a little more interesting, or at least more satisfying, to watch Ladner craft comestible poetry within the constraints.

Your best move is to start off with an aperitivo or a cocktail, plus a few antipasti to get the night rolling. The curated drink list is short and sweet, an advantage of which was that my “Il Affumicato” ($15)—a bracing potion fueled by smoky mezcal, sweetened with almond-y orgeat, and rounded out with fresh ginger and the saffron-violet florality of Meletti amaro—arrived as precisely calibrated on a sleepy Monday as the time the bar manager mixed it himself. Mile-high ciabatta sticks ($6 for two), sourced from Cambridge’s Hi-Rise, came with a plate of good mascarpone spruced up with intensely floral Sorrento lemon oil, peppery olive oil, and black lava salt. Also strong was the shrimp cocktail ($30): six plump U-12 beauties gently poached in a rich fumet made from shells and tails, then chilled and plated with a Russian-dolled stack of iceberg leaves; a horseradish-y cocktail sauce dialed back in intensity the right number of notches in the marinara direction to enjoy by the forkful (or lettuce-cup-ful) once your shellfish allotment runs out; and, oddly enough, a kiddie-size portion of piping-hot fries in a paper cone. That’s right. You get a few bonus frites. It’s…quirky. And I liked it enough to put it in that little “Menu Highlights” box you’ll see on this page.

At Del Posto, Ladner’s pastas were considered not just good but, in the words of one smitten Times critic, “insanely good.” They’re strong at Bar Enza, too, if a little simpler conceptually. The best one I tried was the angry lobster ravioli (market price), which featured a tomato-based sauce spiked with Calabrian chili paste and generous chunks of sweet, tender decapod crustacean. Shrimp scampi ($29) over linguine reinvented no wheels, but it’s the best version I’ve had in town. I like it when the sauce isn’t so wet it falls off the noodles, which is the problem I usually encounter. Garlic bread crumbs, a hit of Aleppo pepper: classic but flawless. Meat-and-cheese
ravioli ($28)—no, I swear I’m not exaggerating the aggressive everyman description; it’s literally the dish’s name as written—was filled, as billed, with beef stracotto (pot roast) and robiolina (cream cheese, basically), then sauced with browned butter. If you’re here with a crowd, this one’ll please it.

Hake with a twist. / Photo by Linda Campos

Another dish I’ll bet flies off the menu: the “Shake & Bake Hake” ($28). It looks gorgeous on the plate, with a bright-green swirl of rich broccoli purée that filled half the surface area, crowned with a generous pile of dark-brown buttered bread crumbs. At the table, the server fills the other half of the plate with a pale-yellow lemon-butter sauce that looks and pours like eggnog-hued semi-gloss. You drag the moist, shingled swaths of butter-poached fish through the green sauce, then the pale-yellow sauce, and back again. It’s so elegantly presented that it takes a beat to dawn on you that this is good old-fashioned New England baked scrod dressed up for a night on the town.

On the other end of the spectrum are dishes such as the medallions of lamb ($44), which were delicious but possessed all the visual appeal of sensible shoes. Five brownish-gray oblong rectangles of good Colorado saddle, seared to medium-rare, then painted with a translucent golden-amber grainy-mustard sauce that resembles…let’s go with “broken butterscotch.” The choice of boneless medallion here is sort of a head-scratcher. Maybe someone thinks lamb orderers at the Charles Hotel don’t want to contend with bones? Or. And this is only conjecture. Perhaps Ladner thinks, like I do, that no restaurant has ever done lamb chops better than the agnello scottadito at his former gig, Babbo, and chose the path of a little distance from the past.

Angry lobster ravioli gets a kick from Calabrian hili paste. / Photo by Linda Campos

Sometimes, of course, ditching your previous life isn’t in the cards. The only dish on the menu I actively didn’t like (other than the barbecue-meatball thing) was a weirdly mannerist rendition of Ladner’s most celebrated dish: the 100-layer lasagna he created for Del Posto’s menu in 2009. Unlike the worthy original, this one ($35) skips the meat sauce in favor of alternating layers of tomato marmellata and mozzarella besciamella, a vegetarian flex that tasted like some sort of savory layered cheesecake to me without the (wait for it…) ladleful of optional meat sauce you can get for an extra five bucks. It felt like a stilted Vegas act from another era.

I wonder if any of this bugs him. But I also wonder if he had little say in the matter. Hooking your wagon to a restaurant from the Lyons Group comes with a lot of advantages. You get a beautiful space to cook in, good promotion, a real budget for ingredients, but one thing’s for sure: You have to play your hits.

Which brings me to the guy with a laptop and outdoor-voice issues holding court a few seats down the bar from me at Bar Enza. He really likes the lasagna and is jonesing to pass along the good news to the kitchen. But he isn’t convinced the bartender fully grasps the superlativity of the situation. “No, no, listen…I’m serious. Go in and tell your chef there’s a guy out here who’s eaten lasagna all around the world, and this lasagna,” he says, pausing to brandish a forkful and let the stakes sink in, “is the best lasagna I have ever had.”

Eh. Fair enough. Maybe whoever’s calling the shots over at the Charles Hotel knows what’s up.

★★ 1/2

Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050,

Menu Highlights

Shrimp cocktail with fries ($30), “Shake & Bake Hake” ($28), Angry lobster ravioli (market price)

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