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Garden at the Cellar

This Cambridge gastropub is blooming with local flavors
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  July 25, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars
FEEL FRITES: Garden at the Cellar's steak-frites plate is one of the best in Boston.

Garden at the Cellar | 991 Mass Ave, Cambridge | Open Tues–Sat, 11:30 am–2 pm and 5–11 pm | MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up three steps from sidewalk level | 617.876.2580
The rookie comes up and, in his first major-league game, hits for the cycle. Well, maybe not an ordinary rookie, since 25-year-old chef Will Gilson was previously a line cook at Oleana, and grew up at a family herb farm and restaurant in Connecticut. But in an unlikely room over the subterranean Cellar bar, Gilson has cultivated a gastropub based on local produce, and a neat list of draught beers and wines, that doesn’t cut any corners.

The warm French bread and butter are terrific, for instance, and you’ll want to save some for the sauces to come. Two bar snacks, warmed olives ($4) with olive oil, browned shallots, and whole cloves of uncooked garlic, and a small plate of roasted potatoes ($3) tossed with garlic mayonnaise are both addictive and dangerous. (Just don’t fill up too quickly or you’ll miss out on the other treats the Cellar has to offer.)

First on that list is a tasting menu ($35), which is hard to pass up. The amuse bouche was an onion-skin-thin carpaccio of beef with gorgeous olive oil, sea salt, shaved parmesan, and a few leaves of fresh chervil. Sensational! Then there was a brilliant salad of (not too ripe) watermelon, cucumber, and more of that fresh chervil. The third course was a line of five small, nicely browned sea scallops with two light sauces: a carrot purée that resembled an orange whipped cream, and a white froth with hints of mint. The actual entrée might have been an anticlimax, had the locally farmed double pork chop not been so full of flavor. It was served with sweet corn, which was sautéed to give it a pleasant salty flavor, and a side of a cheesy baked casserole of local zucchini. Admittedly, local produce in July makes this format sing, and we’ll see how well Gilson does with the root vegetables and farmed seafood of winter. But on this tasting menu, he has hit the goal of all “new-American” chefs: preparing local food with French technique, as if New England were a province of France.

Excellence extends to the regular menu. Even the four pizzas ($10 to $13 each), an apparent nod to bar patrons, were super-gourmet, judging by our wild-mushroom flatbread ($11), with its crisp crust and amazing cheese, wild-mushrooms (enhanced with a hint of truffle oil, I believe), and fresh arugula toppings. One person could eat this, but not if anyone else at the table has a sense of smell.

Another casual dining option is the tomato soup ($7), with its real tomato flavor, creamy richness, and just enough herbal obbligato. This is actually a full meal, since it’s served with a grilled-cheese sandwich that’s stuffed with honest cheddar. Unfortunately, it seems to be slumming on white bread. Caesar salad ($7) seems to have anchovies in the dressing; there’s also an elusive peppery build-up to the usual romaine and croutons.

You must try the steak-frites plate ($20), one of the best I’ve tasted in Boston. The steak here is that of a superior-quality flank or hanger steak, with all the flavor and much more tenderness than is typical of such cuts. The frites, served in a large container, are of McDonald’s caliber: just as crisp, but with a buttery flavor accentuated by carefully restrained rosemary and another soupçon (literally, “suspicion”) of truffle oil. For non-meat eaters, the grilled salmon ($17) is a good choice; it’s topped with a salsa of citrus pieces, sautéed bell peppers, and onions. Or you can try the vegetable risotto ($15), which on a recent visit was made with mushrooms and fresh peas. The rice was only slightly al dente, and flavored mostly by the mushrooms (of which I could identify shiitake and oysters, but the peas lent a nice crunch.)

There’s a fine list of draught beers, and my Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA ($4) was wonderfully fresh and hoppy: not only bitter, but flowery, aromatic, and even a little fruity as well. Judging by the taste, the draught was whistle-clean and not too cold. The wine list was also fine, cheap, and full of basic bottles, but nicely picked, to judge by our 2005 Luc Pirlet pinot noir ($8/glass; $35/bottle). This is one of the newish varietal wines from the Pays d’Oc, in south-western France, and was quite light, with a nice vanilla flavor of oak.

Sweets lovers, take note: the Garden doesn’t really do desserts, though they tend to have something complimentary on hand. Our night it was inch-square rosemary brownies. The rosemary wasn’t dominant (not an easy way to use rosemary), but added an exotic undertone to the chocolate. There’s also no coffee. On a conventional rating system, this would cost a restaurant quite a few points. But with every other course so terrific, it’s hard not to give my moderately priced dinner anything but a top grade.

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