Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hip to Be 'Square'

Nowadays, Paul’s Palate’s memory seems to fade in and out like the waves of the ocean sea. How convenient, then, that I am miraculously able to recall my dining experience several years ago at an eatery that lies but a stone’s throw away from this body of water? Square Café, located directly in the heart of Hingham Center, is the brainchild of Patty Libby, former partner/owner of nearby culinary competitor and equally esteemed Tosca. If memory serves me correctly, Libby’s New American menu at that time focused on traditional dishes accompanied by hints of modern panache and a wealth of fresh flavors. This time out, would Paul’s Palate find himself singing Huey Lewis’s eighties anthem ‘Hip to Be Square’ or find himself merely running in circles?

Immediately upon arrival, our dinner party is warmly greeted with open arms, and made to feel like part of Square Café’s extended, if not somewhat likeably dysfunctional family. In fact, the host shouts aloud his attraction to my two-toned loafers, and humorously implies that he cannot seat us until I divulge where I’ve purchased them. Once this matter is settled, we are promptly seated at our table. The café’s interior has the soothing effect of an upscale health spa given its cherry floors, custom furniture, vintage botanicals and warm pastel green walls and seats. On Square Café’s website, its cuisine is even described as ‘food to nourish the soul.’ It’s as if Deepak Chopra and Dionne Warwick decided to open up this semi-spiritual, new-age establishment.

Like the café’s ambience, cocktails are equally quirky and appealing. Forget that boring dirty martini. How about sampling a fun, fruity trio of guava-mango, blood orange, and cantaloupe martinis? Similar to Square Café’s ambience, these drink’s flavors are sweet, but not offensively so.

Appetizers entice us further. Appearances can certainly be deceiving upon initial glance. For instance, offerings that include pork and vegetable spring rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, calamari, and shrimp and crab cakes sound as they originate from more commonplace (though respectable) food chains such as Chinatown or Legal Sea Food. Blink, however, and you may miss some of the most unique combinations of ingredients which make these dishes come alive: a light, zesty chili lemongrass sauce (for the spring roll); a smorgasbord of lightly-breaded sweet potatoes, green beans, peppers, zucchini, and onions and a sweet soy dipping sauce (tempura); grapefruit, papaya, and roasted cashews (calamari). Executive Chef Andrea Schnell’s exceptional culinary skills are on full display given her willingness to experiment with such bold, fresh combinations.

Schnell’s creativity sneaks into her entrees as well, which are split into small and large plates. Shrimp on its own would be so laissez-faire. Square Café prepares it hot and sweet, accompanied by simply divine mango fried rice, which could be served as a main course in itself. I’m the lone diner at my table brave enough to consume raw fish, and order the yellowfin tuna. The fish is perfectly seared, its center bright pink, and its texture tender and buttery. What makes this fish dish truly swim is its distinctive accoutrements: yuzu vinaigrette, pomegranate drizzle, seared bok choy, and jasmine rice.

Desserts are sinfully delectable, and our amazement over the quality of the food continues. What could possibly delineate this restaurant’s warm chocolate cake from countless others I’ve consumed over the years? That’s easy: serve with scrumptious, gooey, warmed heapings of English toffee, chocolate and caramel sauces, and a light, gelato-like vanilla ice cream. It also helps matters that the cake itself is as moist and rich as any other version I’ve tasted in years. I yawn at the thought of bread pudding, which can often be bland and dry/over-cooked. Schnell’s ethereal version consists of lumps of bananas and pineapples that awaken one’s taste buds.

Service is nothing short of sensational. Our genial waiter possesses the perfect blend of patience, humor, promptness, and menu knowledge, and his presence played a major role over the course of the evening. He is as polished as any waiter you’ll see in town.

For my money’s worth, Square Café is a hole in one. Sure, the meals may not come cheaply (appetizers $10-$15, small and large plates ranging from $19-$32, desserts $6-$8), but the portions are generous and its innovative cuisine rivals anything that the best and certainly more expensive eateries in Boston (Mistral, L’Espalier, Sorrelina) have to offer. Paul’s Palate’s verdict is in, and I’m saying it loud and proud: it is most certainly hip to be 'Square.'

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