The Boston Phoenix
November 20 - 27, 1997

[Dining Guide Special]

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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.
Full bar
AE, DC, Di, MC, Visa
Wheelchair access via elevator; validated parking in One Kendall Square parking garage.

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.


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