The Enormous Room
567 Mass Ave, Cambridge
Open SunĖThu, 5:30 p.m.Ė1 a.m.; and Fri and Sat, 5:30 p.m.Ė2 a.m.
AE, MC, Vi
No valet parking
Up full flight of stairs
Iíve been saving this place for an otherwise hard week. I mean, if the initial reviews say thereís only one dish on the menu, "the enormous platter" ($14/person), how hard can this be? I can review this place in 20 minutes all by myself ó no guests to brief, no difficulty scanning the menu, no problem cajoling Mrs. Nadeau into breaking up one of her diets, no return visits to make sure Iíve covered all the bases. No hassle with the editors over whether to cut my jokes or the dessert descriptions to fit this space. Hey, this week the restaurant photo can be the biggest picture in the Boston Phoenix. Itís an enormous room, so take an enormous picture!
Well, as it turns out, the room isnít that enormous, and theyíre up to seven things on the menu. The upstairs of Central Kitchen, the space had been several small restaurants, but now itís stripped back to bare brick and open ceiling, with a small bar and kitchen. In its current incarnation, itís a long room with low couches and chairs, and some raised platforms where you can sit cross-legged and eat on the floor or even, perhaps, lying down, as they did in the ancient Mediterranean. The menu is still pretty simple, as some dishes are near-subsets of the enormous platter.
So hereís the menu description of the enormous platter, since it will be too dark to read it when you are there: "Many little tastes on an enormous plate ... choose either a moroccan spiced beef skewer, harissa chicken skewer, or a herb rubbed salmon skewer and it will be served with a variety of north african style accompaniments such as couscous & baba ganoush & picked beets & pickled turmeric cauliflower & lamb briouats & potato date briouats & marinated feta & tabouli & mixed olives & kefir sauce & harissa, etc ... etc ... creative license is involved in the platters. most things, but not always everything will appear. trust us."
The only explanation I wanted after that was why, when you apply for the creative license, you canít renew your punctuation and capitalization permits at the same time?
Our version of the enormous platter (ordered for two) had a skewer of excellent marinated beef and another of nicely charred salmon chunks. Alongside that were two brouiats (triangles wrapped in phyllo dough) of savory chicken. A heap of lemony hummus. A small heap of buttery couscous. A small dip of rather liquid baba ghanoosh (smoked eggplant). Sliced fresh pita breads for the spreads. A lentil salad. A rice salad with chopped vegetables. Chunks of pickled beet. Some olives. It would certainly fill up two people, and amuse them in the process.
Another platter on the menu is "fritters, fries + fried delights <north african dipping sauces>" ($11). This actually had the harissa (hot chili paste) as well as four excellent, spicy falafel patties, two more brouiats (spinach and cheese this time), and a vast heap of shoestring potatoes ó hot, fresh, and salty. The other two dips were a garlic-yogurt dip and the tahini sauce we associate with falafel.
We also tried the "tagine ~ traditional moroccan stew<saffron chicken served over couscous>" ($12). Actually, tagine is the name of a vessel with a conical top, but this one was served in an ordinary casserole with the couscous on the side and a couple of crackers, making for awkward eating; the tiny grains got all over the table. The stew itself was good, not great, being mostly chunks of carrot and shredded chicken in rather too much saffron, unless you really love saffron.
Drinks are in some sense the object of the exercise, but the emphasis is on mixed drinks, with eight bottled beers and none on draught. The wines are a house red and white, served in small tumblers that lose whatever aroma the wines might have had. A glass of the house red ($4.76) was probably shiraz, probably not a really good one. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($4) was served in the bottle, still a terrific, hoppy beer. A tequila sweet-and-sour ($9), made with fresh lime and pomegranate juice, is a very promising drink, like a whiskey sour.
Because this is a bar for youth, there is real coffee, no decaf. On slow parts of the evening, you can get cappuccino ($3) and desserts from Central Kitchen downstairs. We got as far as the cappuccinos and one crème brûlée ($6), then were told the downstairs kitchen was "getting hammered" with orders, so no more desserts. Sated on enormous platters, we werenít distressed by this decision, and enjoyed a shallow crème brûlée with lots of burnt sugar and custard just fine, especially after learning we wouldnít be charged for it.
Atmosphere at the Enormous Room is everything, and itís certainly very cool. The low lights suggest the crowded indoors of North Africa with blinding sunlight outside, even well after dark. The early evening is world music, then some reggae. Music this good can be fairly loud without setting off my usual alarms. Later on there are DJs and dancing. The crowd is young and bohemian, with the room suited to mixed groups that get mixed with other groups using the large table.
Our server, Jude, was similarly young, bohemian, and world-beat, having been born in Hungary, raised in Portugal and the US, and having lived abroad, including in South Africa. (We were there early, and she had time to talk.) Given how low the tables are, it is probably a good thing that she is also a personal trainer, and can work on her squats.
As Central Kitchen extended the minimalist rightness of Miracle of Science and Cambridge 1 to a Mediter-merican bistro menu, so the Enormous Room focuses it back down on North Africa. The magic is still working. Of course, first you have to find Central Kitchen, which has almost no signage, and then go in the door to the left, which has nothing but the outline of an elephant as a rebus for "enormous."
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com .