Neighborhood restaurants in the suburbs used to be predictable: American food featuring steaks, usually fried chicken and maybe some pasta (in a nod to Italian cuisine), along with chintzy decor and waitresses who knew your name. Cygnet, open 18 months in this well-to-do offshoot of Beverly, can be seen as a window into how that model is changing -- and how it stays the same.
There's a comforting feeling to Cygnet. The greeting at the door is friendly and the place is cozy; the light is a little dim, with the ceiling and walls paneled in narrow-width dark wood. The decor just skirts kitsch. The walls are lined with every sort of print, from still lifes with flowers to Ted Williams holding a large fish to many snapshots of family pets.
Yet there's a bustling bar scene even on a weeknight, and the wine list is extensive with some interesting wines by the glass. Cygnet's menu is the other indication that the old model has morphed from American to New American. Chef Brian Girard's background includes training at the Culinary Institute of America and stints at now-defunct Salamander, as well as the Lyceum in Salem and at Yanks, which is around the corner from Cygnet (James Glesener owns both Cygnet and Yanks). As he says in a phone interview, Girard concentrates on recognizable American food. But he adds panache and sophistication to his most successful dishes.
With 16 appetizers and 11 or so entrees plus specials, Cygnet's menu is extensive -- designed that way, Girard says, because the owner wants to make sure the restaurant's many regulars have enough selections to choose from. That's a valid concern, although such diversity can create its own set of problems. But more on that later.
It behooves the diner to sift through and choose the dishes that seem most seasonal. One late spring evening, the cold poached artichoke strikes the right notes, its garlicky bread crumbs and dribbles of sharp vinaigrette blending with the velvety texture and mild flavor of the leaves and heart. Since they arrive from California before the local vegetables are even in the ground, artichokes are a great teaser for the fresh season. A salad of lobster and avocado takes the high road, large enough to be a main course and featuring a whole lobster tail. Two of us split the salad, and the kitchen accommodates by beautifully arranging it on separate plates. The salad is both light and luxurious with its complementing flavors of sweet lobster meat and mango, all given a jolt by the chilies added to a citrus vinaigrette.
Many appetizers would span any season. Barbecued oysters convey just enough spice to match nuggets of smoked bacon and a buttermilk dressing-drenched spinach and red onion salad. A duck mousse has a rich taste and a silken mouth feel. It's delicious and made into a little sandwich layered with its accompaniments of slightly bitter arugula and thin, buttered toast. Beef tenderloin carpaccio suffers in comparison; the ingredients are fine, but the flavor is blah. And red-pepper soup dotted with creme fraiche, a special one evening, also rates only as pleasant.
Cygnet makes good use of the abundant seafood available along the nearby coast. Girard uses the classic flavor combination of shellfish with bacon and corn and then puts a modern twist on it. The scallops, seared and gently sauteed, are perched atop a corn-and-bacon risotto, resulting in a distillation of summer.
A thick slab of tuna is treated differently on the two menus -- late spring and early summer -- sampled. The late spring version, with lentils in a red wine sauce, works better, although possibly I'm influenced by the fact that on an early summer visit, the tuna, still rare inside, is so thoroughly seared as to be almost burnt along the edges. On the second visit, couscous, red onions, and broccoli rabe -- along with a mound of olive puree -- accompany the tuna.
There seems to be little connection between the flavors, and with the tuna overcrisped, the dish retreats in memory. Black bass, quickly crisped and very simply prepared, is a fine fish one evening, but seemed to have sat a little too long. That style of very quickly sauteeing or frying a whole fish works best if the fish is only minutes from the stove to the table.
There's another disconnect between grilled lamb chops -- themselves carefully cooked and deliciously moist -- and a thin roast tomato sauce flanked by olive puree. The two together, both high in acidity, are jarring, a piling on of flavors that doesn't complement the chops or the soft polenta on the plate. New York strip steak is another well-handled meat that would be better without the oily onion-potato pancake that comes with it.
Desserts are more retro than the rest of the menu, pretty to the eye but sweet and unexciting to the palate. A creamy cheesecake with strawberries is pleasant; chocolate terrine with peppermint whipped cream is rich and sweet; and a pineapple upside-down cake benefits mostly from the accompanying lime sherbet.
Cygnet's best points -- some very good food and comfortable surroundings -- are diminished somewhat by the service. Not that it's rude or unpleasant; at the beginning of both visits, it is attentive and quick. But, perhaps because of the complicated menu or other factors, the length of time between ordering and when courses arrive can be excruciatingly long.
And as the evening winds down, even the refilling of wine glasses -- or any attention, for that matter, including niceties like topping wine glasses -- falls away, and we're left checking our watches, wondering when the evening will end.
Somehow that doesn't seem very neighborly.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
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