Monday, July 31, 2006

The Tasting Menu Experience at Upstairs on the Square

Do you want to really spoil yourself and your dining companion? How about a world-class dining experience featuring 5 - 7 "tastings" (smaller plates) with layered, light flavors; surprising but perfect ingredient combinations and clean, sophisticated presentation? How about a night of savoring one of the best meals you'll ever have, in a gorgeous, eclectically-designed dining room with service that is second to none without a hint of pretentiousness? Recently I had the privilege of enjoying such an evening - at Upstairs on the Square.

I'm still thinking about what an all-around perfect evening it was and why more restaurants can't live up to their standards. They make it look so easy and effortless (which of course it isn't). All the hectic activity and hard work that probably goes on behind the scenes is invisible to the diner, as it should be but rarely ever is in most other establishments. So kudos to the warmest, friendliest restaurant partners you will ever meet - UotS' Mary-Catherine Deibel and Deborah Hughes. Their passion for food; positive, upbeat attitude; and laid-back sensibility permeate every facet of the restaurant from the food to the décor to the staff.

UotS is on Winthrop Street, a tiny road in Harvard Square tucked between JFK Street and Mt Auburn Street. Plans are underway to shut down the street to traffic and make it a pedestrian-only promenade with outdoor dining at UotS, Om and others. Something the Boston area needs more of!

There are 2 restaurants in UotS. Downstairs is the Monday Club Bar, a bit more casual in menu and ambiance, a place where you could easily find yourself becoming a "regular." Upstairs is the more formal Soirée Room (pictured above) where the Tasting Menu is offered. Feels more like a place to go for a special occasion, whether it be a birthday, job promotion or heck, maybe just a good hair day.

Our occasion was a birthday celebration and between the two of us, we were able to try everything on the Tasting Menu even though we opted for the 5-course menu instead of the 7. What a great way to eat out. Getting to try a little bit of so many different flavors - local produce, seasonal fish, varied preparations. And let's not forget about the wine pairings. Each "tasting" is paired with a different wine. This is an optional choice but I highly recommend it. (Unlike us, you don't actually have to try and keep up and drink all the wine in each course.) Wine Director Matt Reiser does not mess around. The man knows what he's doing. Trust his judgment. Anyone who can find a fabulous Hungarian dessert wine (Tokaji) clearly does his research.

Our first courses were Roasted Beets with Horseradish Panna Cotta, Arugula and Passion Fruit and Ravioli of Sweet English Peas with Smithfield Ham & Pecorino Romano. The Roasted Beet dish is zbsolutely gorgeous and what a combination of flavors. I am a passion fruit freak these days so to me, it's a success right out of the gate. But add the roasted beets (truly, people, beets are incredible if prepared right), the horseradish panna cotta (smooth with a kick - every roast beef sandwich should have some) and the arugula and you have an absolute winner. The Ravioli tasted like summer. The fresh whole peas in the pasta added texture you rarely taste in ravioli.

Next, we both savored the Slow-Baked Atlantic Cod with Hon-shimenji Mushrooms & Lemongrass. The mushrooms were very nutty, a nice companion to the cod. What I think I loved most about this dish was the serving "ceremony." We were each served our cod dish and then the waiter poured the broth into our dish from a small silver serving vessel. So civilized.

Pan Roasted & Braised Giannone Chicken with Native Spinach, Lovage & Aromatic Broth was the next course. The chicken was crispy on the outside, moist on the inside. The spinach was wilted but had plenty of substance and lots of flavor. The lovage was a first for me. It's an herb in the parsley family that tastes sort of like celery. Very crisp tasting.

The next course was our favorite - Wood-Charcoaled Lamb Sirloin with Pesto, Summer Panzanella (tomatoes, onions, etc.) & Lamb Jus. Wow. Whatever preconceived notions you may have about how lamb tastes go out the window when you bite into this dish. It tastes like amazing steak. So incredibly tender and cooked to perfection, medium-rare. Definitely order this dish even if you're not a lamb fan.

For dessert, we had the Artisanal Cheese Selection and Peach Tatin with Puff Pastry, Roasted Peaches & a Peach Creamsicle Shooter. I'm always a fan of cheese whether it be for the first or last course. I especially enjoyed a Vermont bleu cheese that was much milder than most bleus. The Peach Tatin dessert was great. The highlight was the Creamsicle Shooter which is a childhood favorite all grown up. Delicious.

Steven Brand is the young, wonderful chef who has developed this adventurous menu. A Marblehead native, Steve's previous experience included a stint at the world famous Jeans-Georges. In the words of UotS partner Mary-Catherine Deibel, "He is going to be a star." The night I dined there, he was in Spain, exploring all things culinary and trying to get into the impossible-to-get-into elBulli restaurant, home to Chef Ferran Adria, famous for developing the most cutting-edge food and dining experiences. Hope he got in and brings back some more great menu inspirations.

Upstairs on the Square
91 Winthrop Street, Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA
Tasting menus must be partaken by all diners at the table.


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