Small Planet Bar & Grill
A great bar with great principles, but the food could use a bit more
795 Main Street (Central Square), Cambridge; 441-9020
Open Mon - Fri, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Sun
All major credit cards
by Robert Nadeau
The first Small Planet, in Copley Square, was a real challenge to this
reviewer. The stated agenda -- world-beat food, ecologically conscious, yet
unpuritanical about enjoying all of what we do have here -- was and is exactly
my own. From the thick slab of white pine used as a bar -- we're not going to
put our margarita down on the last of the tropical rainforest in this
restaurant -- to the African and Asian tastes on the plates, the ideology was
correct and the lack of in-your-faceness was exemplary. Moreover, owner/chef
Frank Bell was a leader in organizing the food world for big events and small
progress against local and world hunger. This was no pose.
But the food was dull.
And that's what I had to write. Fortunately, other people liked it better, the
restaurant succeeded, the charities have been supported, and now there is a
second Small Planet east of Central Square. Since cooking improves faster than
politics these days, I had high hopes. And there have been a number of
improvements. The new Small Planet will be an excellent meeting place, a useful
restaurant, and a fine place to sample microbrews.
But I still find the food rather dull.
The new location looks a lot the same, with the same pine bar and menagerie of
painted wood critters up in the rafters. And the new location sounds even
better than the original, with tapes of great songs by Miles Davis, Elvis
Costello, and Les McCann. There's the same long list of menu credits to
architects and other craftspeople, and the same Oxfam America photos of Third
World food efforts on the walls. But I had the same odd feeling that the people
in the photos, poor as they are, were eating a better-tasting meal than the one
in front of me.
Well, maybe not the time I had the superbly smoked barbecued chicken, but most
of my other food was no more than competent. Guacamole and chips ($4.50) was
bland on two visits. One time it was so bland I suspected it was being padded
with mayonnaise. It does have some cilantro and maybe a little cumin. The plate
of conch fritters ($6.50) was generous, seven racquetballs of rubbery goodness,
but the frying oil had been conserved like a non-renewable resource, and most
of the flavor came from the red-hot "Bermuda mayonnaise." A lunchtime soup of
the day ($3.95), turkey, had a thin broth and chunks of turkey and potato
trying to find each other.
At that same lunch, a grilled-chicken sandwich ($5.95) with pesto and cheese
had good flavors, but they canceled each other out. A portobello burger ($5.95)
is a good idea, as these mushrooms are larger than hamburgers and grill up with
a meaty taste. But this one was overwhelmed by the large bun, and confused with
a spread of pesto. Straight olive oil is the right additive for the portobello
burger, in my opinion. It comes with "planet fries," done to a dark turn in old
At dinner we made the happy acquaintance of the great smoked barbecue chicken
on a barbecue combination ($12.95), but it is also available on its own,
without the rather dry, poached-out spare ribs. The chicken, however, had that
special juiciness that reminds us that smoke-cooking is slow cooking. Good
slaw, dark fries.
At the same dinner, I enjoyed a plate of yassa ($9.95), described as a
Senegalese chicken stew. It may even have been authentic yassa, although I have
a printed recipe that is primarily grilled and flavored differently as well.
Hey, it's a small planet, and this yassa was a dish of pulled chicken and
kidney beans in a mild, slightly sweet curry-like sauce with onions and
buttered spinach. I am quite certain that the delicious jasmine rice underneath
is not the rice they use in Senegal. It's better.
But a grilled lemon chicken ($11.95) had an odd, black crust, somewhat
redeemed by a fresh lemon sauce and grilled pepper and eggplant on the side.
Thai shrimp and noodles ($7.95) had very few shrimp and no discernible Thai
flavorings. I think the inspiration was pad thai, but everything got lost in
The new Small Planet makes a good pass at being a bar, and the calendar of
live entertainment is building up. They have a number of microbrews on draft
and in bottles, and run seasonal specials on drafts from the very promising
Ipswich brewery. The opening special on an amber ale had an off finish, but the
next batch -- "George Washington Ale" ($3.50) -- was a clean, dry, bitter brew,
walnut-brown, just outstanding. "Planet Margaritas" are sour, as they should
be, although not awesomely strong.
Dessert is supposed to be a seasonal shortcake, but the kitchen was out of it
on both visits, and the coffee inspired no tropical reveries. As restaurants
go, this is a very good one to drink at. You can drink to the high principles
of the management, and someday soon, I hope, you can eat to them as well.
We note here the passing of Howard Mitcham, whose 1975 Provincetown
Seafood Cookbook remains one of my favorite volumes. It was Mitcham's
destiny to enjoy Provincetown-Azorean cuisine at its late-'40s zenith, at
Cook's Tap, the bar where fisherman brought the then-unsalable portions of
their catch, such as oversize lobsters, squid, monkfish, Jonah crabs, conch,
ocean catfish, and so on. Fresh off the boat, these materials were recycled
into Portuguese-style dishes, which the fishermen ate for free, so long as they
kept buying 10-cent beer.
I reviewed Cook's Tap some years before it closed in 1986. I also attempted to
review Mitcham's cooking at several restaurants, but the closest I got was an
evening at Pepe's Wharf where I saw the chef leaving in a drunken rage as we
were going in for dinner. Apparently this was not the first time such a thing
had happened; contingency plans existed, and we enjoyed a decent meal of
Portuguese-style codfish vinha d'alhos molho cru, as well as Mitcham's
own adaptation of New Orleans trout amandine for Provincetown haddock. But I
never did get it settled whether Mitcham was as good a cook as he was a writer.
He certainly helped me up a notch in both areas. A bowl of squid stew on a cold
night, in his honor.