Central Square gets a charming bistro
with a powerhouse chef
Dining Out by Robert Nadeau
Centro is a
brilliant little restaurant with an uncertain future. For the moment, you have
the neoclassical Mediterranean food
720 Mass Ave (Central Square), Cambridge (enter through the Good Life)
Open Mon-Thurs, 5:30 -10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11 p.m.; and Sun, 4:30 -10 p.m.
No valet parking
Sidewalk-level access, but presently through crowded dining room
of chef Rene Michelena (ex-La Bettola) in an informal 10-table bistro that
absolutely suits the neighborhood. You can afford it, and you can still get in.
Especially on weeknights, diners share a sense of discovery that I can compare
only to what people feel for certain extended jazz engagements and the scene
that develops around them. To walk in at 6 or 10 p.m. and pick up a menu is to
feel part of something wonderful that probably won't last a year, but will be
talked about for a long time to come.
The background story is that chef Michelena has teamed up with restaurateur
Brian O'Neill -- owner of the Good Life franchise and the newly reopened St.
Botolph restaurant -- and ordinarily I would be checking up for improved bar
food the way I monitored the influence of Jasper White on Legal Sea Foods. But
unlike Jasper White, who essentially took a desk job at Legal's, Michelena is
keeping up his chops at the small Centro while reviving St. Botolph with
O'Neill. Sort of like the Rolling Stones doing a few club dates under an
assumed name while recording a new album.
I call Michelena's food neoclassical because he follows classic forms while
working with relatively few ingredients. Balancing flavors is crucial, and
difficult, since many of the usual safety nets -- sauces, herbal crusts,
flavored reductions or oils -- are sparse. And it is, you know, wintertime.
For example, the bread was a Tuscan-style loaf, crusty outside, soft within. It
came with a little ramekin of spread. On three visits this consisted of
celery-root purče, white-bean purče, and white-bean purče
with a lot of garlic. Only the last was familiar, and all three were
A special pumpkin soup ($8) supported the basic purče with a meaty
rabbit stock. And the garnishes of cured rabbit-meat "confit," crispy skin
cracklings, and fried fresh sage leaves gave the diner a lot of options with
each spoonful. Most chefs in Boston would use a lot more pepper, herbs, spices,
or wine in a soup of this kind.
Bruschetta ($5) was a single thin toast, spread with mild goat cheese and maybe
a wisp of garlic, chunks of mushroom, and grape tomatoes -- the only tomatoes
worth eating in December. The plate also featured a lively arugula salad.
Again, one usually doesnsee bruschetta in the winter without pepper, basil,
oregano, onion, and more.
All the pastas I tried on each of the three visits were similarly focused on
the basics. Garlic gnocchi (half-portion $8, full $15) were airy and starchy at
once. The tomato sauce was sound but sparse, as was some melted cheese.
Capellini with rock-shrimp meatballs and "pesto dolce" ($8, $15) was just so.
The capellini was al dente, a considerable trick with this ultrathin spaghetti
shape, and four shrimp balls were delightfully fresh and sweet. The pesto
wasn't a paste, but a sauce of sautčed fresh basil and sun-dried
tomatoes. A pasta special on fettuccine ($18) had the same al dente perfection
in another difficult shape, thinner and flatter than dried fettuccine. Again
the sauce -- tomato with some homemade sausage -- had me wishing for just a
Of the full entrčes, you shouldn't miss the halibut ($16), a glorious
and fluffy piece of white fish on a bed of sautčed leeks and wild
mushrooms with a dark and savory sauce. Sirloin florentine ($19) was an
excellent bone-in steak, cooked medium-rare to order, but notable for the diced
root vegetables gilded with sweet and sour marinades. A special duckling ($19)
featured the sliced breast on top of a few cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and
homemade duck sausage. The breast slices were rare inside and crispy on the
edges, but the rolls were the only "over-cheffed" dish I had at Centro. The
rice and sausage were too lean to hold together, and the cabbage leaves were
undercooked, according to my ethnic standard.
You may often want a side vegetable ($4). Word is good about the soft polenta,
but my attempt to order it went unheeded, a rare service lapse. Escarole came
as a whole head, browned with onions, a splendid source of roughage.
The wine-and-drink list comes from the '50s-themed Good Life, so you can have
martinis, a glass of $5.25 merlot as soft as prune juice, some pretty good
bottles, or -- my choice -- Italian spring water, still or bubbly, for $4.50 a
bottle. The ice water is frequently refilled, and just fine. Decaffeinated
coffee ($1.75) is quite decent, and tea service is excellent: loose Irish
breakfast, Earl Grey, or linden leaf brewed in a china pot.
Desserts are terrific, and as reasonably priced as the crËme caramel ($4),
which was slightly herbal and one of the lightest versions on record, decorated
with candied pistachios. Assorted cookies and biscotti ($4) on my night
featured a single, pluperfect biscotto, some buttery cookies, and a brownie.
Warm chocolate cake ($7) was the flourless kind, but somehow treated to produce
a brownie-like crust, and was just excellent with homemade chocolate ice cream.
This was enormous the first time I ordered it, but had been reduced to normal
by a later visit. Rustic fruit crostata ($5) was an open, free-form apple tart
with vanilla ice cream.
The room is nice, but not special. Management got the message about the drafty
single front door, and switched to entry through the Good Life. Despite a
constant stream of '50s jazz (Dixieland to bop), and probably the live music on
weekends, Centro isn't too loud. It is, however, a little too dark. If I were a
chef this good, I would want people to see what color the food is.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.