The only puzzle at Conundrum is why they picked that name. There’s a big hint on the Web site, which deﬁnes Conundrum as “a meritage of different styles, techniques.” “Meritage” — combining merit and heritage — is a word made up by the California wine trade in 1988 for Bordeaux-style blends of several grape varieties. Conundrum the restaurant may actually be named after Caymus “Conundrum” ($14/glass; $58/bottle). Caymus named its white blend “Conundrum” because tasters cannot easily puzzle out what it is. It gets its body from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, but has a spicy, ﬂoral, almost tropical aroma that is hard to pin down.
NO PUZZLE HERE: Just good, familiar food.
That would imply that Conundrum the restaurant is full of unpredictable ﬂavors and intellectual challenges. Actually, the menu is well executed but familiar, and so this restaurant is very useful for relaxed ﬁne dining. I picture the red-state parents of Harvard freshmen eating here, with their kid and a friend. What is cheffed up at Conundrum is rather ﬁve years ago: vertical platters, food pressed into cylinders, deconstruction here and there, and some Latin-American ﬂavors among the familiar steak, chicken, and seafood entrées. There are only seven appetizers and seven entrées, so vegans will have to negotiate or stick to salads.
The setting is a small room that used to be Iruña, and it isn’t too loud. For some reason, the small dining room is done in dark colors that make it seem smaller, like the kind of paint job an imaginative freshman might try. Unless all the lights are on full, it’s hard to read the menu, and one misses the really clever effort to match the seating fabric (a pattern of red, black, and gray) with the servers’ khaki pants, black tops, and crimson (must be) aprons.
The bread basket one night included slices of Iggy-style fruit-nut bread and a crusty French bread, the next night just the French bread, both times served with sweet butter.
My favorite appetizer was shrimp Culican ($14), three remarkably large shrimp in a slightly Mexican sauce (supposed to be chipotlé butter) around some salad. Nothing radical about an enormous warm shrimp cocktail, though. Tomato conﬁt and crab Napoleon ($12) sounds odd, but the Napoleon part is that it is a tall, thin cylinder of excellent fresh crabmeat with a few dividers of thin-sliced tomato. Again, it’s hard to locate the conﬁt; maybe it’s those red dots of sauce circling the platter. In any case, you have a super crab salad.
Surf-and-turf tartar with avocado coulis ($13) comes in two cylinders: one made of bits of raw beef, the other raw tuna. The avocado coulis is like the sauce that holds the cylinders together. Caesar salad ($9) does beneﬁt from delicious “housemade croutons,” and I liked the Parmesan crisp, all the cheese baked into a thin wafer. But when the anchovy is also a single ﬁlet dropped on top, all this deconstruction leaves you with a nicely dressed small salad of Romaine and croutons.