CUTLINE: SQUASH-AND-LOBSTER BISQUE Genuine Nantucket bay scallops and excellent lobster
What if a chef dropped all commercial considerations and spent his or her days searching out the best local ingredients (plus sustainable airmail staples) and producing short-menu masterpieces for a select clientele? This is the ideal that Tim and Bronwyn Wiechmann bring to T.W. Food, a teensy “bistro luxe” in the space that used to be Aspasia. As for the menu, it’s pretty green — often biodynamic and organic — but not doctrinaire. If you accept that great chefs are either devoted to cuisine du terroir (regional ingredients) or cuisine des épices (unusual flavor combinations), know that, here, the Wiechmanns are doing both, and also drawing on the latest test-tube emulsions and froths.
T.W. Food | 377 Walden Street, Cambridge | Open Mon–Sat, 5–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up a threshold bump; bathroom down full flight of stairs | 617.864.4745
This is foodie heaven, but it’s not a restaurant for beginners. Some things are too fussy and forced, and some things just don’t work. With that in mind, T.W. Food could be characterized as the kind of place many diners will visit once for the experience. To really enjoy it, though, you probably ought to return often enough to anchor your experiments with known winners.
We began our meal with slices of a whole-wheat loaf and unleavened, slightly sweet multi-grain bread, both glorified with European-style butter sprinkled with sea salt. Then came an amuse bouche of a cherrystone clam with some hot pepper: very good. In the same spirit, you can order a T.W. Oyster Shooter ($3/each; $15/“six-pack”), which is impeccably fresh, from Duxbury, and served in a beet purée. The combination of sweet oyster and earthy vegetable is surprising and effective.
Appetizers might be the course to skip. Of them, handcrafted turkey and Vermont-farm pork bratwurst ($11) would be my pick. It’s lean, meaty, and delicious, served with a side sauté of Asian spinach and wild mushrooms that’s hearty enough to support it. Crème brûlée of foie gras ($14) is, of course, rich and delicious, but the burnt-sugar crust adds nothing. Scrambled egg with spinach concentrate and Oregon porcini mushrooms ($13) uses the crunchiness of the wild mushrooms nicely, but we’re not here for breakfast. And an autumn salad ($10) of local greens with apples, pickled vegetables, and a wisp of vinaigrette was very good, but not amazing.
The silliest appetizer is “local Napa cabbage soup perfumed with vanilla sauté of wild Washington matsutake mushrooms and Narragansett Bay razor clams” ($12). Here you have the aforementioned froth, but all I tasted was cream and vanilla, and maybe some spice from the wild mushrooms.
Vermont Waverly Farm roast loin of veal ($30) and roasted monkfish loin ($28) were the best of the entrées. Both dishes were carried by marvelous flavor and the freshness of the protein component. The veal was as richly flavored as lamb and garnished with Chinese-spinach custard and a potato pancake. The monkfish, which usually needs a sauce, was as tasty as any fish I’ve had this year. It was served with creamed local leeks, micro beets, and black trumpet mushrooms.
I also enjoyed the squash-and-lobster bisque ($30) for its genuine Nantucket bay scallops and excellent lobster meat, plus the clever addition of similarly textured baked apple slices. But the cream theme — the classic crutch of French chefs — can mute flavors and be hard to digest. Wild Scottish hare and foie gras “tourte” ($29) was like a glorified hamburger in puff pastry. I ate every bite. The vegan entrée our night was nutmeg and cinnamon oatmeal “risotto” ($27). Once you put sweet spice on your oatmeal, it starts to taste like breakfast food. But the braised red cabbage on top could be the beginning of a real vegan dinner.
The wine list had 24 fairly obscure items, marked up noticeably. (The cheapest bottle is $39.) Anton Bauer 2005 Zweigelt ($10/glass; $44/bottle) is a fruity Austrian red made from a new grape crossbred from two other Balkan grapes of which you’ve never heard. Served in oversize glasses, it tastes somewhere between a high-end Beaujolais and a very well-made generic Burgundy. A glass of Belle Pente 2005 riesling ($9/$39) from Oregon was somewhat closed up, but was very good with the food. A glass of 2004 L’Ecole No. 41 (Washington State) cabernet sauvignon ($59/bottle) was also complementary, but was quite tannic. I’d like to try it again in a few years. Decaf coffee ($4) was from a French press, and was, in fact, the best decaf of the year. Tea ($4), unfortunately, is served as a cup of hot water. C’mon, buy some individual teapots.
The most successful dessert, I thought, was the selection of artisanal cheeses ($12), which included a Norman livarot (my favorite in the smelly category), rather bland brie, and excellent Pennsylvania cheddar. Profiteroles ($8), chocolate ice-cream-stuffed pastry bites, are innocuously good. The poached local pear ($8) is neatly stuffed with a stick of chocolate ganache, but otherwise isn’t noteworthy.
All the fussiness at T.W. Food comes out in “Scotch and cigars” ($8). The center is a half-cupcake of chocolate-mousse cake — nothing strange there — but this floats in “vanilla-tobacco infused crème Anglaise” (not strong tobacco, so it’s not scandalous), and is topped with edible gold leaf. Talk about “gilding the lily”! Then you have a shooter of Laphroaig single-malt Scotch syrup, which tastes like peaty cough syrup. The last dessert is “fresh baked grapefruit-citrus tarte classique with Calvados whipped cream” ($8). It’s a flat version of key-lime pie without distinctive flavor, but it does have a great crust.
The room is small and long, with one wall of bare brick, comfortable modern chairs, and a high ceiling. It would be noisy, but since there are fewer than 30 seats, it stays very pleasant.
T.W. Food quickly found a local clientele of foodies who appreciate the spirit of experiment and aren’t put off by a weak dish here and there. If that’s your kind of fun, T.W. Food isn’t even expensive by comparison with, say, Radius or Dante. You might as well order the “chef decides” ($59/meat or vegetarian; $89/with wine).
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