Leslie and I have been eating at Craigie on Main with regularity since 2003, back when it was known as Craigie Street Bistrot and was located just up the street from Harvard Square in Cambridge. I was recently done with grad school when we started dating and I had virtually no money, so for months I saved a little from each paycheck so I could take Leslie out for a nice meal. Friends had recommended the place and I’d read glowing reviews in all the local publications. I desperately wanted to eat there.
When we finally went, we sat in the front area to the side of the hostess station. I felt the same way I did when I went to my first major league baseball game – a barely-containable sense of anticipation and excitement. I was hyper-aware of every one of my senses, so as I sat there and tried to engage in conversation with Leslie, I was simultaneously distracted by the hustle and bustle going on around us. At a certain point she realized what was going on and voluntarily went quiet so I could soak it all in. I wanted to yelp with joy. Our first meal included hanger steak topped with a poached egg, and we had a first course of wonderful crispy fried smelts. We’ve been coming back ever since.
Open in its new location since late 2008, Craigie on Main is generally described as a French bistro but could just as easily be called an American restaurant inspired by French tradition. For that matter, you’re just as likely to find food items from other cultures on the menu as well – in the past we’ve seen pasta, Spanish-inspired dishes, and sashimi coming out of the kitchen. The menu in general has a strong bias toward ingredients and flavors local to Massachusetts and the northeast.
Helmed by chef/owner Tony Maws, this is a restaurant you can enjoy for any occasion and feel right at home. The dress code is casual – all servers wear dark jeans and black button-down shirts – and the majority of people eating around us last Tuesday were wearing some variation of jeans and a nice sweater or button-down shirt. Most women were wearing skirts or jeans with a sweater.
We arrived for our 8 PM reservation and were seated without having to wait at all. The details of our meal follow:
For Leslie, a small bite of squid “noodles” dressed with fried garlic and nuoc cham, a sweet Vietnamese lime and fish sauce. We’ve had this amuse here before and it’s a real winner. I could eat an enormous plate of just this and be very content.
For me, it was thin strips of crispy fried pig’s ear with miso vinaigrette and a roasted sweet golden beet. I was unsure of what to expect, having never eaten pig’s ear before. It was like eating a very crispy piece of thick-sliced bacon. I was happily surprised. This may very well have been the crispiest thing I have ever eaten. Crispy bits hall of fame material, for sure.
I was pleased to see the crispy fried smelts back on the menu – I hadn’t seen them since our first time eating here. This time around the smelts weren’t so crispy. They came coated in a thin tempura-like batter but it barely clung to the fish and was more soggy than crispy. I would have been perfectly happy had the word “crispy” not been part of the description, and having it on the menu created false expectations. That aside, the fish were perfectly cooked and were served with several small dollops of squid ink anchoïade (a garlic-anchovy dip) that also had preserved lemon and pickled pepper puree mixed in. Wow. This provided an awesome burst of flavor that was surprisingly not-so-fishy despite the squid ink. It was fun to dip the smelts in it with my fingers and pull the meat off the spine, which is purposely left in.
A plate of six Duxbury oysters was wonderful, served with a candied lemon mignonette in the shell. The oysters had a surprising cucumber flavor to them. I asked our server if the mignonette had cucumber in it and she said it didn’t, so these are some of the most cucumber-y oysters I’ve ever had. Also, I’m grateful when oysters are served without cocktail sauce. I’ve never understood why people would cover up the flavor of a tasty oyster with a concoction of ketchup and horseradish. The folks at Craigie wisely do away with this.
Ragout of Boudin Noir and Forest Mushrooms – served with farm fresh poached egg, farro verde, herbs and flowers. Everything served at Craigie is excellent, but this was truly outstanding. This was essentially a stew, packed with earthy and woodsy flavors. Boudin noir is a French blood sausage (yes, blood!) and if you’re adventurous enough to try it, you’ll be well rewarded. For those who know the taste of umami, the so-called “fifth taste”, this dish abounds with it. The farro grains took on the dark maroon color of the boudin noir and provided a contrasting texture to the ever-so-slight crunch of the perfectly-cooked mushrooms. It was pretty sexy watching Leslie pop the egg yolk and carefully mix it in with the ragout. We finished the entire bowl and wiped it clean with bread. Not a speck of the stuff was left.
Grass-fed sirloin à la poêle for me. This came as three medallions of sirloin, cooked perfectly medium-rare – exactly as I ordered it. The trio of medallions overlapped one another and was topped with a few tablespoons of oxtail pastrami, and alongside were small pieces of braised bok choy, baby yellow carrots and sauce vert (which the server described as an olive oil-based sauce with mint, parsley, cilantro, sage, green onion, and garlic). As perfectly cooked as the sirloin was, the oxtail pastrami stole the show. It was the standout feature of the night, by far. The flavor was packed with smokiness not unlike barbecued brisket, and the meat was flecked with spice rub. It was outstanding!
By the way – à la poêle means pan-sautéed.
Leslie ordered the Slow-Roasted Dayboat Monkfish, which came with bits of peekytoe crab (love that name), quinoa, and Jerusalem artichokes. I wish I could say more about it than what was on the menu description, but I was transfixed by my dish and barely paid any attention to what Leslie had.
We shared dessert, which was house sorbet with candied fruits. We got one scoop each of yogurt, grapefruit, and blood orange sorbet, all made in-house. The texture was soft, smooth, and incredibly creamy while simultaneously being airy and light. The yogurt sorbet was my favorite; to me it tasted like sweet-smooth goat cheese more than yogurt. The grapefruit sorbet was pleasantly sour with a distinctive bitterness that comes with grapefruit, and it was only moderately sweetened (which I liked very much, as I generally prefer desserts that aren’t too sweet). The blood orange sorbet was similar in flavor profile but less tart. I began scraping off bits of each scoop to try a mix and found that my favorite combination was the yogurt along with some of the blood orange – just like a blood orange creamsicle!
(I have one minor critique on the dessert. The menu says the sorbet comes with candied fruit but this is inaccurate. It actually came with a dime-sized piece each of candied red beet, fennel, and some sort of indiscernible yellow gelée. Lemon perhaps? These were all pretty to look at but didn’t add anything to the dessert.)
A nice surprise at the end – out came two small ceramic cups full of drinking chocolate – officially described as cardamom & ancho chile infused Valrhona chocolate. Picture the flavor of hot cocoa but the consistency of syrup, spiked with a mild spiciness from the chile and herbal undertones of the cardamom.
As if that wasn’t enough, after we’d paid our bill and were on our way out the door, our server intercepted us with a pair of chocolate truffles, filled with a crunchy something that my slightly buzzed palate couldn’t decipher (hazelnut?). It was a tasty little truffle though, and a sweet way to end a great meal.
Although I have no personal relationship with chef/owner Tony Maws, and have had just one conversation with him (back at the old location, when I was so enamored with the piece of hanger steak I had been served that I had to tell the chef in person how delicious it was), I can’t help but feel a sense of comfort when I walk in the door and there at the very visible pass-through is Chef Maws, inspecting every dish coming out of the kitchen before putting on the finishing garnish. It’s like being greeted by an old friend. When I see the owner right there in the kitchen, I know that quality is not being compromised even one iota.
It was a great meal, and we’ll be back again!