BY JUSTIN OSOFSKY
While often overlooked by the Harvard crowd, Chez Henri (located across the street from North Hall) is a charming restaurant that receives constant raves from Boston foodies. Chef Paul O’Connell fuses French and Cuban influences to create dishes that differ from standard bistro fare. But with entrÎe prices hovering in the mid-$20s, dining at Chez Henri can quickly drain a student budget. Fortunately, the restaurant’s bar offers a more affordable alternative.
The drinks at Chez Henri are quite different from those found at Cambridge Common or Temple Bar. The menu proclaims the trendy mojito ($6.95) to be “the most popular drink in Cuba.” It certainly was the most popular drink at Chez Henri on a recent Saturday evening. To make this fantastic concoction, fresh mint leaves, sugar and lime juice are furiously muddled over ice. Then, white rum and soda water are added, and the drink is finished with a mint garnish. For those who venture past the mojito, the caipirinha ($6.95) is wonderful. It resembles a margarita, but has a stronger lime flavor and a Cachaca (a dry Brazilian rum distilled from sugar cane) – rather than tequila – base. Pineapple juice plays prominently into the Havana Special ($5), where it is mixed with rum, and the Flamingo ($5.25), which includes a touch of grenadine.
Just as the Mojito is the drink of choice, the Pressed Cuban “Cubano” Sandwich ($10.95) is by far the most popular dining option. This massive creation is a great sandwich to share – eating it whole is a cardiologist’s nightmare. Layer after layer of slow roasted pork is pressed with cheese between pieces of crusty bread, then flattened and grilled into a gooey masterpiece. A vegetarian version is also offered.
Moving past the Cubano, the conch fritters ($7.95) are far superior to most versions. Though fried, they are surprisingly non-greasy and the light breading does not overpower the conch meat. The remoulade (spicy mayonnaise) sauce provides a nice kick for this sumptuous appetizer.
The duck tamale ($8.95) has an interesting preparation, but does not stand out as much. More of a light entrÎe salad than an appetizer, a single tamale is served on top of a large spinach salad. The mix of textures (chewy duck meat, soft corn meal, and crunchy spinach leaves) is appealing, and the vinaigrette’s acidity forms an interesting contrast with the well-spiced tamale. The onion soup gratinee ($7.95) was by far the most ordinary offering. Many of its components are perfect: soft stewed onions, topped with a slice of crusty baguette and gruyere cheese melted to perfection. However the broth itself is very salty, and a strong beef flavor overpowers the other ingredients.
The scene at Chez Henri is quite different from other bars in the area. The twenty seats (nine at the bar and a few small tables) fill up quickly with regulars. It’s worth waiting for a seat, because the standing area is narrow and en route to the bathroom. In addition to the limited bar menu, the full menu is also available anywhere in the restaurant. If trendy Latin drinks don’t strike your fancy, there are several beers on tap and wines by the glass.
Chez Henri is not the only upscale restaurant to offer a less expensive bar menu. Rialto in the Charles Hotel, Sister Sorel (the same kitchen as Tremont 647) in the South End and Sel de la Terre (a more casual restaurant from the L’Espalier owners) on the waterfront also provide this option. While the experience of eating at a bar undoubtedly differs from an elegant dining room, so does the tab at the end of the evening.