OXYMORONIC EATS Foundry straddles the line between comfort food and bistro dining, and the results are delicious, even if this beef stew isn’t stew-y enough for us.
The best moment at Foundry on Elm, despite excellent food and drink, may be when you first walk in the door. This is a rare large eatery that takes full advantage of the dramatic effect of horizontal space. After so many crowded restaurants and bars, the big space is as relaxing as a time-machine trip to one of the old Harvard Square cafeterias. There is a long bar, a lot of high seating, and, as you keep going back and back, enough booths and tables for a legendary delicatessen.
The menu alternates comfort and bistro themes seamlessly. The breadbasket is crusty Italian bread, and there is butter for it. My favorite appetizer was a poached pear salad ($10), mostly for the nicely dressed and enormous heap of mizuna, although ripe pear cubes and gorgonzola cheese are fine garnishes. Another good, sharp dressing is on the roasted local beets ($8), which seemed to be mostly golden beets, and not too concentrated in flavor as you can usually get with the dry-heat roasting. Greens were arugula, nearly as good as the mizuna, and served with goat cheese.
On the bistro tip, there is a "crudo of the day," ours being four slices of fresh fluke sashimi ($5) over fingers of sliced onion and fennel where a sushi bar would put the rice. Of course, if you want a more filling appetizer off the menu, that would be poutine ($9). The treatment is classic: French fries, meat gravy, and cheese curds, for which the Foundry has actually sourced squeaky cheese, a breakthrough — if one can describe anything about this comfort food as a breakthrough for anything but the coronary arteries. About four people could split this and consider it an appetizing appetizer. Fewer than that, and it is back to its designed function as a Quebecois hangover cure and poverty lunch.
Top entrée on our limited sample was grilled organic salmon ($19), a superb piece of fish just slightly undercooked to keep all the meatiness in the flavor, with underdone wild rice (no one minded much), and fine diced seasonal vegetables, which are starting to be roots of turnip and carrot.
Baked stuffed acorn squash ($15) was a good try for the vegans, falling short mainly on the under-ripe squash. (Memo to chefs: you wouldn't a buy a fish with cloudy eyes; why accept a winter squash with a green stem?) The stuffing was curried bulgur, a few beans, a few cubes of feta, big walnuts, and a garnish of hot cucumber shell slices in a creamy dressing.
Beef carbonnade ($17) is a dish I've failed with at home several times. Here, the chef (Sam Putnam, lured north from the Ashmont Grill) deals with the problem of getting a decent gravy out of boiled beer by flavoring it with bacon. That is a viable cheat, but otherwise he makes the classic restaurant error with stew, which is cooking like a chef instead of like a chef's grandmother. Stew is supposed to be all stewed together, right? In a restaurant kitchen, however, jobs are organized among sous chefs, so here we have beef cubes, parsnip, potato, carrot, onions, and grape tomatoes — each cooked individually and combined in the bowl. You can dip them in the very passable gravy, but they aren't suffused with it and it hasn't been enriched by them. Not that I didn't clear out the bowl down to the last smear of gravy, sopped up with the last piece of bread.