Sunday, October 26, 2008

Au revoir, Craigie Street Bistrot

This is Craigie Street Bistrot's last week in its current subterranean location; the final service is happening as I write. Last night, we went to pay our respects. Much as L'Espalier made a move this summer from its Back Bay townhouse to the new-hotel-smell Mandarin Oriental, so CSB is moving across Cambridge to Main Street to take over the site formerly known as La Groceria.

This is doutbless a relief for the kitchen crew; as with L'Espalier, the chefs at Craigie Street were pretty much working in a ship's galley. And similarly, the tight confines of the kitchen made it even more miraculous that they were able to create dishes of great delicacy, complexity and balance. The dining room isn't exactly cavernous, either.

The parallels between the two gave us a little trepidation. Our swan-song
visit to L'Espalier had been disappointing; would Craigie Street's standards also start slipping as they prepared to close the doors?

One sign that this was not going to happen: Young Tommy is now the bar manager.

Okay, I shouldn't call him that; it's just that he was one of the first kids I met when I started as a school volunteer 15 years ago. He was a 10-year-old who managed to be both bratty and charming, and now he's lost the brattiness (pretty much) and has become a
respected local mixologist who made a name for himself at Eastern Standard and is obviously destined for great things.

The school librarian, Jean (still one of my best friends), had high hopes that he'd become an astronaut; frankly, I think his chosen career path is a much greater service to humanity.

We settled in to read the menu, and then I recalled something I'd read in a CSB email about a wine. All I remembered was that it was made by re-using the lees after fermentation; that the result was either absolutely terrible or completely fantastic; that a recent vintage had been the latter; and that Craigie Street had the only 15 cases in the country.

"Oh yes," said our server, "you mean Noire." It was $68 a bottle, but we figured we might not get the chance again.

I'm not a sommelier. I'm getting more competent at pairing wine with food, I know what I like, I know what to expect from certain varietals. I don't have the vocabulary to explain Noire in wine terms, so I'll try this instead:

Usually, when I taste a wine for the first time, I can pinpoint certain fundamental flavors and characteristics—plum/spice/tannins; pepper/citrus/acidity; peach/minerals. It's like watching Murder, She Wrote and figuring out whodunnit in the first act.

By comparison, tasting Noire was like watching Memento: just when you think you know where it's going, it gives you more clues, different angles, unexpected revelations. Instead of responding to the first pour with (sip) ... beat ... "yes, that's fine, thanks," this was more like (sip) ... beat ... "wow ... oh, wait ... hold on ... oh my goodness ... oh ... um, this is amazing."

Oh, also, there was food. We both went for the prix fixe, with a couple of substitutions from the a la carte menu, and ended up with:

  • Tartare of citrus-cured Irish sea trout with sturgeon caviar
  • Banyuls-cured duck breast and fennel/pepper-cured lardo

  • Spanish octopus with fresh hearts of palm (possibly the best octopus I've ever had)
  • Ragout of cocks' combs and local mushrooms with a slow-cooked egg (I wiped the plate with bread; have I mentioned that I don't like mushrooms?)

  • Slow-roasted sweetbreads, marinated in yogurt and served with kohlrabi and turnips
  • Lamb: roasted loin, slow-cooked belly (a square of sweet fat), ragout of tongue
Throughout the meal, the wine changed, not just opening up as it breathed, but also being a chameleon to the flavors in the dishes, matching note for note against duck meat and fennel, chestnuts and kimchee.

And then dessert—it's included! How could we say no? The Boy had profiteroles with chocolate sauce and banana ice cream, and I had warm cornbread pain perdu with lemon-verbena ice cream, blueberries and huckleberry sauce. Lemon and blueberry should always run on the same ticket.

And then Young Tommy appeared with a couple of unexpected glasses of dessert wine, and met our (weak) protests with "I'm new here; I don't know what I'm doing."

And then there was a tiny dish of burgundy mousse with a champagne sorbet.

And then there were fresh, buttery madeleines with the cheque.

And then we wandered outside in a daze and I took a last couple of photos.

The new restaurant,
Craigie on Main, opens around November 14.

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