A miniscule sampling:
2005 – One of America’s 10 Best New Chefs, Food & Wine
2007 – Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator
2008 – Top 10 Restaurants in the World for Carnivores, Food & Wine International
2009 – One of the “Hot 10” Best Brunch Places in the USA, Bon Appetit Magazine
2010 – James Beard Award Finalist, Best Chef of the Northeast
Craigie needs no introduction.
853 Main Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
This is a restaurant that is not only driven by excellence in all areas, but consumed by its obsession with perfection. Both experiences here have left me feeling happy to the tips of my toes from the time I walk in the door until the moment my head hit the pillow, slightly inebriated on the strong cocktails (which, by the way, were free during our first visit because our reservation wasn’t ready…five whole minutes late <—this, ladies and gentlemen, is called outstanding service).
Imagine your grandmother’s country home…now place that charming little country home in the French countryside. Hearty and elegantly worn wooden floors run the length of the dining area, shabby chic antiques line the walls and soothing cool tones (light blues and greens) color the space. The decor is rustic, yet refined and cozy, and provides an wonderful backdrop during the meal.
Even the bread basket – rolls swaddled in an ordinary dish towel – conforms to this theme.. So simple for such fine dining, and yet, ingenious.
The kitchen is open for all to see.
Executive Chef / Proprietor Tony Maws is known for his obsession with pork and using all parts of the animal; it’s only fitting that little wooden pigs dance across the back wall of his kitchen. A hand-written note that says “NO COMPROMISE” written in all caps on a large piece of packing tape confirms his attitude toward food, and, I’m sure, represents the driving force behind the immense success of his establishment.
Craigie On Main is not a place you to go get dinner. When you eat here, be prepared for a multisensory experience that completely revolves around the artistry of ingredients, complex techniques and the arrangement of what arrives at your table.
We ordered the Chef’s Whim, $40 for four courses of entirely original dishes thrown together on the spot. Think Top Chef, but done in the real world. Since Craigie aims to please, and the most successful dishes might end up on the regular menu, you’re asked to fill out comment cards during your meal. Um, yes please.
An amuse bouche of house made squid noodles topped with crispy garlic was promptly delivered to our table.
Followed by our cocktails: an Ardoise and a Northern Lights.
(Many apologies for the cocktail picture. My camera apparently shat itself.)
An amuse bouche is an item, not included in a menu, that serves to prepare the mouth for the courses to follow. Representative of the chef’s approach to cooking, it should be no larger than a bite to a bite-and-a-half. The squid noodles are thinly sliced squid tossed with an Asian ginger-type sauce and topped with crispy garlic. Salty, sweet and gingery, the soft, cold squid actually tasted similar to chilled glass noodles. A great way to tease our palates and prepare them for the procession of delights to follow.
My Ardoise incorporated flavors of rain, sage, juniper and lime. It was sweet and tart, yet stiff, and the sage (see: leaf floating in drink) spiced it up for extra flavor. KnightlyBoyfriend’s Northern Lights was a libation consisting of St. Germain (one of my faves), Scotch, citrus and Bittermans Tiki. The scotch was definitely the star of the show, but the citrus and St. Germain mellowed and sweetened the typically pungent fumes. Although I’m not much of a scotch/whiskey/bourbon drinker, I would definitely order this for myself.
We enjoyed a lively debate over our first course: sashimi of yellow tail (tuna) and avocado, drizzled with harissa and topped with an onion relish and sprouts.
I loved how the vinegary tanginess of the onion relish mingled with the sweet and smoky undertones of the harissa, while KnightlyBoyfriend contended that, yes, the fish was so fresh and tender that even Bear Grylls couldn’t complain, but that the condiments were nothing new to him.
I made a rookie mistake and tried the second course, panko-crusted fried clam, without its accompaniments (squid ink and pickled pepper relish) and mistook it for bland. Then I tried all components together and understood why – squid ink has a very briny flavor (think olives), and salting the panko crust would have most definitely thrown me into cardiac arrest.
KnightlyBoyfriend declared this to be the single most delicious fried clam he’s ever eaten, and as as a true New England boy who has grown up eating / devouring / dedicating shrines to fried clams, he ‘oughtta know. Apparently he has a thing for squid ink, because it was all he had in him to hold himself back from running his finger along the plate for the remaining sauce.
We enjoyed glasses of Cotes du Rhone, assuming that after several fish courses a meat was sure to follow. We were mistaken. The wine was delicious, but a TERRIBLE pairing for our meal of seafood and poultry. A nice, crisp sparkling wine would have been lovely, or a basic pinot gris.
Our main course was not, in fact, half of a pig’s head (I took no possibility off the table) but a braised, seared chicken thigh atop a potato galette, braised Turkish greens and an onion soubise (buttery caramelized onions, essentially).
The onion soubise stood out among the components. It was phenomenal. So sweet and buttery the onions LITERALLY melted in your mouth. KnightlyBoyfriend hates onions and not only ate every single bite of this, but he has been trying to recreate it since Craigie.
The chicken itself was fork tender and impossibly juicy. It also literally melted in my mouth. I mean it when I say I have never eaten a piece of chicken THAT tender and THAT juicy. Never. Not even a hint of dryness that is characteristic of chicken. It. Was. Like. BUTTAH. That being said, I wish the skin on mine had been a little crispier. (KnightlyBoyfriend’s was perfect, mine was crisp in some places and flaccid in others…yes flaccid. Stop laughing. Not laughing? Ok, maybe it’s just me and my 5-year-old self.) The plate was full of soft and creamy and juicy, and that little crunch from a crispy skin would have offset it nicely.
We ordered (by “we” I mean “I” and by “ordered” I mean “practically tackled the waiter when he mentioned these were on the menu”) a side of brussels sprouts roasted in duck fat (OHMYGOD). The waiter barely had a chance to finish explaining what it was before my Id flung itself across the table positively screeching “THAT THAT THAT I WANT THAT I WANT THAT BAHHHH” because those are two of my favorite things (cue: Julie Andrews).
Brussels sprouts in duck fat? I mean, really? REALLY??? Like these would ever be anything but PHENOMENAL. Cooked to perfection (harder to find in restaurants than you’d think – not too crunchy and not too soft) with a nice salty DUCK FAT CRUST. Oh baby.
It was during this course that Grasshopper got a little too big for his britches.
“Shhh. Stop talking to me, I’m eating.”
*While pushing a piece of chicken aside, he caught me staring at him quizzically.* “What? I’m saving it for last.”
*About the brussels sprouts* “These don’t taste that much different than yours.” (<—Yes. Yes, I’m bragging. Recipe.)
*After he finished the meal, he leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head.* “Phew. Where’s the cigarette?” (KnightlyBoyfriend does not smoke anything, ever – read between the lines on this one.)
This was slow food meets classic French cuisine, full of warm, soul-hugging flavors that shone brightly. Layer after layer of flavor and spice danced across the tongue and teased the taste buds, making for an incredible dish.
For dessert? I was served a cherry panna cotta with granola and kirsch sauce.
It was…fine. Both times I’ve been to Craigie the desserts have been just so-so. The granola had the distinct flavor of Fruity Pebbles (while interesting, not exactly what I was looking to taste on my high end dessert) and the panna cotta was much too tart. Don’t get me wrong – I ate it and enjoyed it, but it was nothing memorable.
KnightlyBoyfriend was served chocolate chartreuse creme with chocolate gelato and crumbled popcorn (fitting, since he’s the chocoholic of this relationship).
The presentation was striking, but the chocolate cream had too much of the licorice flavor for KnightlyBoyfriend. I thought the chocolate and licorice combination was interesting (I enjoy licorice), but nothing that turned my world upside down. The popcorn was there for a textural contrast, but it didn’t particularly mesh flavor-wise with the rest of the dish. We both agree the gelato was absolutely fantastic. It had that nice, concentrated, bitter chocolate flavor without being muddled by too much cream and sugar.
I think Craigie On Main suffers from what I like to call the “Top Chef Syndrome.” You have this chef (Tony Maws) who is clearly a brilliant virtuoso of culinary prowess, but who approaches desserts with the same mentality as he does his other dishes (not with the mind of a dessert fiend). The end result is a final course that’s lackluster, especially when compared to the sheer artistry displayed in every other course. They were good, strong desserts, don’t get me wrong, and they will please his experienced gourmet clientele, but they were not what you’d find in a renowned bakery.
All that said, we still left tingling with the intense high and innate happiness of gluttony and earth-shattering food, to put it in Tony Maws’ vernacular, from snout to tail.
Our bill came out to $162 before tax. This included:
- 2 amuse bouches
- 2 cocktails ($11 each)
- 2 Chef’s Whims (serving four courses apiece, each $40)
- Brussels sprouts ($10ish)
- 2 glasses of Cotes du Rhone Domaine d’Andezon ($11 each)
- Coffee ($5-ish)
- Scotch – Eagle Rare 17 (I think it was $20)
We split the bill and each tipped over 20%, bringing the total per person cost to approximately $100. Not cheap, but you can’t put a price on an experience like this. That being said, don’t go unless you can enjoy yourself without worrying about the cost. It will detract from the food and the experience, and you will end up wasting your money on something you aren’t in the proper mindset to enjoy.
Summary of this Knight at the Restaurant
- Craigie On Main is fine dining at its best. No detail is spared, from the cozy shabby chic / French country decor, to the rolls served wrapped in a dishtowel, to the artful presentation of the food.
- Food is a fusion of elegant, “modern” fare and classic French. Many dishes intimate an Asian influence. Interesting techniques display new texture profiles, and the experimentation of ingredients is playful and still warms the soul.
- It is a multisensory experience in which every area of the tongue has the chance to flex its little taste bud muscles.
- The Chef’s Whim is an excellent way to visit Craigie On Main without leaving hungry and / or paying the premium for the tasting menu ($95-$115). The true “whim” factor became evident when we saw the couple next to us order the same – after the amuse bouche, no two dishes were alike. This can be good or bad. Good, because you know you’re getting something truly special. Bad, because we had seafood and chicken and they got pork belly and cod cheeks…I think our waiter mistook us for less-than-adventurous because I was asking so many questions. He was wrong. I was asking questions because I was fascinated. Pork belly would have been nice. We’ll just have to go back
- Craigie On Main isn’t a place to see and be seen. Despite it’s enormous reputation, the focus remains on the food and on creating an outstanding experience for the patron. Tony Maws understands that the world’s many ingredients and techniques know no boundaries, and he flexes his creative muscle in every dish that leaves that kitchen.
KnightlyBoyfriend was formerly the person who was hesitant to spend large sums of money on food, believing that the difference between fine dining and less-nice-but-still-nice-enough was not enough to warrant the cost. He has slowly opened his mind, and has found that (generally speaking) you get what you pay for. (Note: this does not include those delightful holes-in-the-wall places – we’re comparing Craigie to those in its class.) When we left the restaurant, KnightlyBoyfriend said it best,
“It’s not just eating. That was something special; I feel like I’ve had something special created just for me. I see what you mean now when you say that chefs are artists who work with food [actually, I say food is their medium, but close enough]. This is something I’ll never forget.”
It’s moments like this that make me love food. It’s about creating lifelong memories with the people you love. It’s about feeling like you’re a part of something special, just because you took that one bite. It’s about learning – not just about the world, but about yourself. It’s comfortable and familiar, yet inspires you to think creatively.
FINAL RATING: 4.7/5.0
A KNIGHTED MEMBER OF THE RESTAURANT ROUND TABLE (I know I’ve only been twice, but you can bet I’ll be returning – as much as I can afford – for more.)
Question: What was the moment in your life that made you realize just how passionately you feel about food?