My parents birthdays are three weeks apart so, a couple of years ago, my brother, sister, and I decided to get them a joint present. Rather then sending my mom flowers, again, and buying my dad yet another book, we’d all pitch in for a gift certificate to a nice restaurant. After extensive research, I chose Craigie on Main in Cambridge.
Unfortunately, my parents never got around to that celebratory dinner and the gift certificate’s been sitting in my mom’s desk drawer while Craigie racks up honors—number two on GQ‘s “10 Best New US Restaurants,” one of the Boston Globe‘s “10 Most Influential Restaurants of the Decade,” the third most popular restaurant in Boston according to Zagat. When chef Tony Maws won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northeast last May, I decided I’d had enough. My dad and I would use that $100 whether or not it was fair to my brother and sister. Between their combined peanut, nut, and shellfish allergies, there wasn’t much on the menu for them anyways. We finally went this past weekend. And it was glorious.
We were a little early for our 7:30 reservation so they set us up for drinks on “the ramp.” The restaurant is divided into a dining room and a bar area, with a ramp connecting the two and a shiny, open kitchen in the middle. I had requested to be seated in the dining room but ended up liking our circular booth in the bar area better anyways. Although the coolest place to sit is clearly at the chef’s counter, where you can watch the cooks work their magic. Done up in grays and reds, with French posters decorating the walls, the space feels very homey. My favorite part was the chalkboard next to the kitchen, with all the fresh-from-the-farmers market specials…aka duck fat-fried Brussels sprouts. Yum. They’re all about eating local at Craigie, the back page of the menu lists all their purveyors and Maws only serves tomatoes in August and September when they’re in season. But back to the drinks; my dad ordered his usual gin on the rocks with an olive (he regretted it when he noticed the bar’s wide array of scotches, though) and I got the Civilian cocktail, with Mezcal Vida, Seville orange, date molasses, and Thai chile. So good, citrus with spice. As my dad pointed out, you only need one.
The best way to do Craigie is to splurge on either the six- or eight-course tasting menus ($95 and $115, respectively…a relative deal compared to New York) but, after lobster cobb salads at the Four Seasons for lunch, neither I nor my dad were hungry enough. Instead, I did the three-course prix fixe ($65 for an appetizer, entrée, and dessert) and my dad just ordered off the à la carte menu. And we started with some oysters. Wellfleet oysters with candied lemon mignonette, to be exact. The best oysters ever, to be specific. Briny, with a hint of sweetness. I wanted way more than three. Craigie just made Wine Enthusiast‘s “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” but we had church early the next morning so I just ordered a glass of Vouvray and my dad stuck with his gin.
Before our appetizers, our server brought out two amuse-bouche—chicken liver for my dad and smoked mackerel for me. I didn’t try the chicken liver but the smoked mackerel was delicious, topped with salty roe and served with a garlicky piece of toast.
To start, I ordered the grilled Spanish octopus and my dad got the crispy fried Maine clams. If the pictures of the amuse-bouche didn’t give it away, Craigie’s presentation is amazing. My octopus, a pile of grilled cipollini onions, green olive and lemon salad, and bulgur wheat over a bright yellow spiced artichoke purée, tasted as good as it looked. Charred but still tender and juicy, it was cooked to perfection. The clams were awesome, too. Crispy and lemony, with a kick from pickled peppers and squid ink anchoïade.
For mains, I got the slow-roasted arctic char mi-cuit and my dad went with the special burger. In a word, incredible. My fish was more seared than slow-roasted, hence the “mi-cuit,” lending it a sashimi-like freshness. Peekytoe crab and Jerusalem artichokes balanced the fishy flavor and red quinoa provided a nice crunch.
Now, before you judge my dad for his order, you should know that Craigie’s burger is a Boston sensation. After being written up both locally and nationally, it got so popular that Maws was forced to start ordering meat from other sources that didn’t align with the restaurant’s standards and philosophies. Eventually, he decided to return to the original purveyor and only sell around 20 burgers a night. (We didn’t know any of this when my dad ordered it but, in retrospect, he looks really savvy.) Let’s just say it more than lives up to the hype. A blend of three cuts of beef, suet, bone marrow, and dehydrated miso powder, the patty is an umami explosion. Add to that house-made made ketchup, red wine vinegar pickles, celery root slaw, and thick-cut steak fries and Minetta Tavern‘s Black Label can kiss this burger’s ass.
I was in a major food coma by the time dessert rolled around and forgot to write down what I had but it was basically a mix of brownie, malted milk ice cream, salted peanuts, and chocolate sauce. So, yeah…heaven. It reminded me a lot of my all-time favorite: the sundae at ABC Kitchen. I want both of them again, now.
To say we liked Craigie would be the understatement of the year. Seriously, our meal had my dad whipping out my cell phone during Easter dinner and showing my extended family the pictures. Local, seasonal, and organic food just doesn’t get better than Maws’ French-inspired rustic cooking. My only complaint would be that our service was somewhat lacking. While our waiter was friendly and super knowledgable (about the menu as well as craft gins), he kind of forgot about us half-way through our meal and never brought the beer my dad ordered with his burger, despite the fact that he recommended it and we reminded him…twice. He was very apologetic, giving us our first round and my dessert for free, but that shouldn’t happen at a restaurant of this caliber. Maybe the service is better in the dining room?
Still, that wasn’t enough to taint this place for me. Even I, a jaded New Yorker, couldn’t get enough. I’ll be back next time I’m home.