Center of attention in Harvard Square
Matthew Curtis and Chris Lutes - the duo behind Miracle of Science, Audubon Circle, Cambridge 1, and Middlesex Lounge - have mastered the art of the upscale-casual restaurant-hangout.
Their new place, Tory Row, proves that every good formula eventually becomes formulaic.
Though it shares the pleasingly pared-back aesthetic of the others - chem-lab counters, shiny wood walls - it doesn't have their sense of purpose. With Cambridge 1, you get the sense Curtis and Lutes said, "Wouldn't it be cool to open a place serving great thin-crust pizza?" With Middlesex, "Wouldn't it be cool to open a dance club that serves good food?" Tory Row lacks that animating "wouldn't it be cool" spark. It's a restaurant in need of a raison d'etre. (Unless being seen is raison enough - the front is all glass, open onto the sidewalk on warm nights. It's the Sonsie of Harvard Square.)
This has a lot to do with the menu, which is neither here nor there: some flatbreads, raclette, Spanish black bean soup, pot pie, veggie burgers. Tory Row is named for Brattle Street, with its Loyalist mansions. According to its website, "Having since cast aside its loyalty to royalty, Tory Row is now Harvard Square's crown jewel, offering an eclectic range of euro American food and traditional drink." Parse the gastro-babble and you're left with a question: Why? A cheeky name like Tory Row practically begs for a menu of cheeky riffs on British cuisine.
Instead, it attempts rebellion with mixed results. Flatbread topped with cheddar, spinach, and bacon is a great snack, the edges browned, the flavors meshing. "I never liked bacon pizza before, but I love this," says one diner. The menu also features a fantastic salad of greens with generous shreds of duck confit, tangy pickled shallots, and plenty of dried cherries, accented by Dijon mustard.
If only other dishes shared this sense of balance. The cheeseburger would be good if not overwhelmed by its giant bun; it's seasoned well but a bit overcooked. The veggie burger is dominated by an abundance of wild rice in the patty. The croque-monsieur is crisped to the point where one can barely taste the ham over the almost-burned bread. The dry sandwich would benefit from the addition of bechamel. Chicken pot pie has plenty of carrots, peas, and green beans but not much chicken; we poke around under the not-so-flaky crust and find all the meat sitting in one spot.
Cod is baked with leeks and fingerling potatoes, tasty enough but desperately in need of visual pizzazz. A sprinkling of chopped parsley on top of this all-white meal would make it look so much more appealing. Hanger steak is as blue as Bob Saget, but we ordered it medium-rare.
In taste and texture, roasted red pepper hummus is suspiciously similar to store-bought. Spanish black bean soup is topped with too little corn relish; its main note is cumin. It's OK - if you've ever made black bean soup, yours is probably just as good. Same with chopped salad, uninspiring despite the presence of bacon and blue cheese.
Dessert is as halfhearted as some of the other dishes: Toscanini's Meyer lemon sorbet and burnt caramel-Hydrox ice cream. I'd have no complaints there, but the two are served in paper cups, and you'd need an ice pick to eat the sorbet. Would it be a lot of trouble to put scoops in bowls? It would feel a whole lot nicer. Ditto pouring wine into wine glasses rather than stunted little tumblers.
But then hanging out here doesn't seem to be about feeling comfortable and relaxed. The space is cramped, with communal bar tables and high metal stools, plus a bunch of lower tables wedged into the back. It's hard to sit down without bumping your neighbor, and the individual tables are too small to hold much food (the emphasis is on what goes in your glass). This can be a problem, as the kitchen hasn't quite gotten its pacing down. One night our entrees arrive when we've barely started eating our appetizers. "I'm really sorry," our server says, looking so flustered we don't have the heart to press the point any further.
Another night, we order a carafe of Rioja, which, it turns out, doesn't come by the carafe. Rather than say so, our waitress simply turns up with an open bottle. OK, bottle it is. The wine list focuses on reasonably priced Old World selections, all available by the glass. There's also a nice beer selection; a big bottle of Brasserie Dupont's Avril, a refreshing Belgian, is a satisfying use of $12.
What exactly does Tory Row want to be? Maybe that's not important: Every time I go, it's busy. Located in the old Greenhouse space, it benefits from a great location and the reputation of its owners. But aside from a few Shepard Fairey prints on the wall, you won't find anything revolutionary here.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.