BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
If you go to the Craigie Street Bistrot, be sure to ask the pony-tailed waiter about his trip to Niman Ranch, where the restaurant buys its pork. He will imitate the drawl of the farmers there: “We keep the fences curved, so the pigs never crowd each other… They have a totally stress-free life.” Bite into the moist, buttery pork, perfectly crispy from pan-frying and balanced with a fresh peach compote, and you’ll feel as content as any farm animal ever did.
Every element of the Craigie Street Bistro seems designed to make its customers feel that contentment. The restaurant is nestled in a quiet neighborhood west of campus, appointed with plush seats and soft lighting that make it seem like a retrofitted living room. Former Clio sous chef Tony Maws woos the neighborhood crowd seriously: Nearby residents can drop by in the morning for coffee, or use the restaurant as a meeting space when it’s not serving dinner.
Maws even offers a $29 prix fixe menu that lets his guests assemble three-course meals from about half of the menu on a given night. The house wine is also inexpensive ($13 for two thirds of a bottle), and decent for the money, although its flavor flattens out as it breathes. Whether these efforts will be enough remains to be seen: Butterfish and Café Celador have both failed in this location in the past 3 years, and both presented themselves as neighborhood restaurants.
The best way to get a local following, of course, is to serve delicious food, and Maws puts forth a promising effort. The terrine of duck appetizer ($10) is exactly as it would be at a good bistro in France: rich with duck meat, perfectly set off by sweet pickled onions and fresh pepper, and coated with an impossibly creamy layer of duck. The celery soup ($7) has a wonderfully smooth feel on the tongue, made as it is with a base of crème fraiche, but the celery flavor is too muted and it drowns in its own creaminess.
The scrumptious pork chop ($18) is a standout, among the best pork I have eaten, although the bitter greens and barely-cooked mushroom sides are not entirely complementary. The chile-marinated skirt steak and grilled bone marrow ($20) is nearly excellent; the bone marrow is rich and smooth, and has a subtle flavor that hints at browned butter without being oily.
The perfectly-cooked skirt steak it accompanies takes its chile marinade well, delivering a smoky flavor with bacon overtones. As with the pork, however, the sides are not a perfect balance — roasted carrots, crisp watercress and barely-mashed potatoes with a bit of butter are good counterparts to the steak as far as flavor goes. However, it would be easier to appreciate the variations in texture within the sides — the contrast of creamy and rough within the potatoes, the crisp watercress — if a more tender cut than skirt steak had been used.
The meal finishes on an extremely high note with an amazing peach poached in muscat ($8) and served with fresh berries and homemade ice cream. The inclusion of apricot nuts — the heart of the apricot pit used in making almond extract — in the poaching liquid tempers the sweetness of the muscat and lets the flavors of the fruit shine through.
The cheese course (market price) is dazzling. The Cervelle de Canut, a Lyonnaise cheese spread made with French white cheese and various finely-minced spices, is tangy but mild, well-paired with the bread and figs included on the plate. The Liening, an aged raw milk Italian goat cheese, starts with a nutty and almost sour flavor, then fades into creamy perfection.
Bistros in France are commonly found in residential areas, comforting the locals with traditional food prepared with passion and skill. If you tire of the loud bustle of many Harvard Square establishments, and want to pretend for a couple of hours that nothing exists in the world but your fellow diners and some well-prepared food, the Craigie Street Bistro is an excellent escape.
[Photos by Erin Bernstein/RECORD.]