The Blue Room
New ownership keeps the wood fires burning at this fixture of culinary Cambridge
by Robert Nadeau
One Kendall Square, Cambridge; 494-9034
Open Mon. through Thurs. from 5:30 to 10 p.m.;
Fri. and Sat. from 5:30 to 11 p.m.; and on Sun.
from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
AE, DC, Di, MC, Visa
Wheelchair access via elevator; validated parking in One Kendall Square
Although a restaurant is a personal expression, it can be hard to
discern the personality beneath the commercial veneer. That has never been the
case with the Blue Room. It's no more blue than One Kendall Square is in
Kendall Square, but it has always expressed lots of personality.
The first time I reviewed it, I made light of the contrasting backgrounds of
then-chef Stan Frankenthaler, schooled in the classical kitchens of Jasper
White, and his partner Chris Schlesinger, the barbecue revivalist. Their common
ground was big flavors and live fire; they fell out over whether these
techniques would be applied to the expensive foodstuffs of fine dining, or the
cheaper fodder of classic barbecue. Eventually, Frankenthaler moved on to his
own vision at Salamander, while Schlesinger held on to the Blue Room, finally
selling it a year ago to Steve Johnson.
Johnson himself is a culinary personality, having served as a sous chef at
Hamersley's Bistro and then fronted a modern tapas menu at the Mercury Bar --
meanwhile organizing the culinary community in a series of Monday programs at
Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library (no relation to Chris). So when he bought the
Blue Room last year, there was some speculation that he would leaven the
Cantabrigian tones of the place with the glossier night people who knew him
from downtown. Based on history, his palate ought to be more Mediterranean and
less Caribbean or Asian.
But when I returned to the Blue Room for a second look, I was amazed most by
the consistency of the place, as though the space had a momentum of its own.
The postmodern refurbishment of the American Woven Hose factory still endows
modern art and bare beams and brick with a surprising warmth. On a rainy night,
the room still smells of wool and woodsmoke. There are still open dishes of
coarse salt and cracked pepper, and silverware wrapped in napkins on the table
(the chopsticks are gone). There is still skate on the menu (used to be
soy-marinated, now done French-style in brown butter with fried sage). The
people look the same. It's still loud. The service is better. The wine list has
gone back to mostly French bottles, which I've noticed in several new
restaurants. Either Steve Johnson was always a Cambridge kind of guy, or
Cambridge eclecticism digests all influences.
Things start bistro, with big hunks of peasant sourdough bread and sweet
butter (no olive oil!). I was expecting a revolutionary menu of all small
plates, but in fact Johnson has kept the menu to a modest list of
tapas-cum-salads and a decent assortment of full dinner platters. One can
certainly assemble a stylish evening from a couple of small plates and perhaps
a "side starch" ($3) such as jasmine rice, plantains, or the now-universal
garlic mashed potatoes. And the full dinner plates often amount to assemblies
of small-plate portions. That was certainly the case with our roasted giant
blue hubbard squash with beets, wild rice, and sautéed chard ($16).
Although the big slice of winter squash is positioned to "read" like a steak,
with a steak-like garnish of walnut-horseradish butter, eating this dish
quickly became a matter of alternating the individual flavors of squash,
exceptionally good roasted beets, rather bland red chard, and wild rice with a
light dusting of sweet spice. Cambridge, of course, demands more than one
vegetarian entree; the other currently is vegetarian bollito misto with
artichoke risotto and truffled oil ($17).
A small plate in the old Blue Room style is seared scallops in hoisin and
sesame ($9). The plate features five perfect sea scallops, lightly cooked in a
sauce of thinned hoisin with some hot pepper added, and sesame seeds, with
enough sautéed leeks in the middle to make this a light dinner for one,
or a bar snack for two or three. A small plate of two salmon cakes -- like crab
cakes, except that they're even more likely to fall apart onto your clothing --
had a nifty garnish of small-leafed mâche, the somewhat mucilaginous
French field green that makes a simple vinaigrette dressing taste even richer
than it is. Some people will expect a dipping sauce with any fried seafood, but
this was well seasoned by itself.
The "duck duo" ($19) was a real entree, if in the bistro style. The meat was
one lean duck sausage and one crispy duck leg and thigh, spiced with clove and
thyme, rather like Hamersley's signature confit of duck. What held the plate
together was a rich stew of white beans, pancetta, cabbage, carrots, and diced
potato, able to sustain any Cambridge peasant fantasy.
The wine list is reasonable, wide-ranging, and includes a few half-bottles,
but a lot of the drinking is in pricey glasses. You know things are fashionable
when a glass of pinot grigio (Hirshpron, 1995) is $5.50, and an unexceptional
Chianti Classico is $7. Servers at the Blue Room pour a small taste of each
wine before pouring the single glass, so perhaps if your expensive selection is
not exactly as
fruity or as
dry as you expected,
you can switch. That would be
a good trade-off for the expense, in my opinion. I should add that hot tea
($1.50) is served here exactly as it should be: loose-leaf tea comes to the
table steeping in a china pot, and my choice, Keemun, was an excellent example,
with a hint of winey acidity in the general toasty-chocolatey flavor. (Keemun
is the one Chinese tea that goes well with milk, by the way.)
Desserts are really exceptional, and a few dollars cheaper than desserts of
similar interest and quality elsewhere. The warm chocolate cake with cinnamon
cream and chocolate sauce ($5) has a flavor and texture midway between that of
a great brownie and a great soufflé cake. That's an amazing combination
of power and finesse in any sport, sport. A fig and walnut tart ($5) purees the
flavorings into something that tastes like pecan pie, but has neither crunch
nor sticky goo to distract you. It's light and delectable, although the
accompanying cider ice cream was too tart for my taste.
The background music, when you can hear it, is jazz, but this remains a loud
room with many smooth surfaces, although broken up with booths and baffles. The
food has enough flavor to stand up to the sound, and Steve Johnson's Blue Room
expresses itself, its owner, and its customers, loud and clear.