Some rendezvous are best kept secretive. Rendezvous, located on bustling Mass Ave in Central Square, Cambridge, should not. Chef/owner Steve Johnson opened up this hip establishment in 2005 in the space formerly occupied by Burger King. But in lieu of serving Whoppers to the masses, Johnson and staff served up sophisticated western Mediterranean-influenced (Italian, French, Spanish, and north African regions) dishes that pack whoppers of taste. Rendezvous opened to wide acclaim and has apparently done little to tarnish its reputation, recently named as one of Boston’s top 50 restaurants by Boston Magazine. Woud Paul’s Palate join the masses?
Johnson’s restaurant is trendy, but without the pretentiousness (this will be a recurring theme throughout the evening). The warm orange and red hues splashed along the walls serve as harbingers of the relaxed, hospitable charm that Rendezvous’s staff exudes. An attractive custom-made counter-high bar resides to our right, while an open-air dining room ushers us is on the left. A rotating wait staff took our orders, knowledgably responded to our questions (although the first waiter failed to mention that one entrée contained milk when someone from our party identified her dairy allergy; thankfully, the next waitress in the rotation brought this to our attention prior to ordering) and provided strong recommendations. Nary a wine nor water glass went unfilled all evening. Most importantly, Johnson’s staff allowed us – like a fine wine resting on one’s palate – to linger and enjoy a well-paced meal.
Appetizers ($8-14) provided a strong beginning to our meal. Seared sea scallops ($12) – four in total – were perfectly cooked, and the accompanying preserved lemon and black olive vinaigrette complimented the fish well. Equally good was the vegetable antipasto with roasted eggplant puree and muhummara ($12). It’s certainly a pretty plate to admire, though there’s a tad too much going on with the dish. I’d have foregone the slaw, beets, or anything antipasto and been content merely spreading the puree and heavenly muhummara (red pepper spread) atop the exquisitely fresh slices of bread (some of the best I’ve sampled in recent memory).
Entrees ($16-28) were equally enticing in terms of Johnson’s playfulness with ingredients. Take, for instance, his highly acclaimed braised pork and veal meatballs ($25). While the four large meatballs weren’t as tender as I had hoped, they were extremely tasty and well seasoned, their flavor enhanced by chicken broth, sautéed maitake mushrooms, kale leaves, and grated paive cheese. Like the aforementioned appetizers, this dish is lovely to look at. What transports it, however, is Johnson’s bold, yet unassuming technique. He fries tiny ears of orecchiette pasta in olive oil until they’re crisped and golden brown on the edges. It’s a finely executed, surprising take on your traditional meatball dish. Even better is the Gascon-style duck three ways ($26). While the sliced breast was tasty, it was a tad underseasoned for my liking. Both the garlic sausage and particularly the confit duck, however, were the duet that ultimately made this trio sing. I’ve never had skate, but the skillet-roasted version served with broccoli rabe, meyer lemon and hazelnut butter was perfectly cooked, surprisingly complex in taste given its simplicity, and will have me looking for this fish in my local supermarket.
Do not, under any circumstances, pass up dessert here. Praiseworthy dishes include their signature lemon-buttermilk pudding ($7), served cakelike in a beautiful pool of huckleberry sauce. Let’s put it this way: a dining companion of ours, renowned for his painstakingly slow pace of eating, nearly devoured the entire plate before I was able to lift my fork. The same problem presented itself with an ultra-moist, airy pineapple and pomegranate upside-down cake with vanilla bean ice cream ($8). These unique spins on dessert were pure comfort food bliss and made for a most memorable finale to our evening.
Rendezvous boasts an impressive, well-stocked wine list (nearly fifty bottles of both reds and whites) from Italian, Spanish and French regions (with a handful of each from the West Coast). A half dozen complex cocktails adorn the menu, while the refreshing non-alcoholic Gulab Sharbatt (a tall glass of soda water infused with pomegranate, cardamom, lemon, and topped with rose petals) is attractive on the eyes and even better gong down.
For its unpretentious, inspired, and relatively affordable cuisine, alongside its (once again) unpretentious, noteworthy service, Rendezvous is a place you want to keep hidden just for yourself. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that it hasn’t garnered the attention of more upscale, expensive nearby spots like Salts or Craigie on Main. And yet, I sense that’s just the way chef/owner Johnson wants things. “How was your experience here this evening?” he inquired as he brings our coats. “We had a lovely evening,” I respond. A warm, wide smile extends across Johnson’s face, as of to imply that he’s glad our rendezvous out to his establishment has been considered a success. My only problem now? Keeping this a secret.
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