Whimsical flourishes at EVOO
Before Rachael Ray made the term ubiquitous, there was EVOO. The Somerville restaurant’s name stood for “extra virgin olive oil,’’ as we all now know. Featuring local produce before local produce was a thing, it presented fine dining with a sense of humor and a populist price tag. It was 1998.
This year, co-owners Colleen and Peter McCarthy (he is the chef) and Steve Kurland moved EVOO to Kendall Square, on a restaurant-barren stretch of Third Street. This appears to be delighting the area’s biotech workers, luxury condo dwellers, and MIT professors, who fill the tables. The relocated EVOO shares a building with the green Watermark apartments and a second branch of Za, its sister restaurant in Arlington. The pizza joint is similarly locavorous and similarly whimsical.
EVOO is no longer ahead of its time. Populist price tags are comme il faut. Even your Great Aunt Edna won’t touch tomatoes in the winter anymore. What continues to set the food apart is its personality. Dishes are exuberant, eclectic, and often ornate. Another chef might construct a dish of, say, parsnip tamales with cumin rice and poblano cream and call it a day. McCarthy looks at that plate and thinks: My goodness! You’re naked! Then he bundles it up with fiddlehead ferns, pickled jalapenos, cilantro, red mole, a poached egg, and crunchy tortilla bits. The description of this dish clocks in at 28 words, a far cry from the school of minimal “scallop, pea, Parmesan’’-type menu writing one sees these days. He’s Faulkner; we’ve been dining on Hemingway. Either way, when you order the thing, you have no idea what it’s going to look like.
Sometimes you may want to like it more than you actually do. There can be so many ingredients in EVOO’s offerings, it’s impossible to taste them all. “Caramelized ground PT Farm’s veal and Vermont cheddar cream in a crisp potato cup with organic spinach, smoked onion, Pete’s pickled peppers, and toasted walnuts’’ is a mouthful in all ways. Comestibly speaking, it’s a fancy potato skin, good comfort food to be sure. The parsnip tamale dish mostly winds up tasting like a parsnip tamale, an intriguing showcase for the sweet, vegetal flavor of the root. But much of McCarthy’s hard work gets lost in the sauce(s).
EVOO’s most successful dishes are more pared down. Wellfleet littlenecks are steamed with tasso ham, kale, white beans, and garlic. A big pile of salad greens is tossed with shreds of mild rabbit confit, cherries soaked in port, toasted pecans, and shavings of cheddar; it’s dressed with mustard-rosemary vinaigrette. Spring rolls are presented like a fried flower arrangement. The crisp, greaseless cigarillos protrude from a little box, held in place by pea tendrils and lettuce leaves. Each in the trio has a different filling: tea-smoked salmon, vegetables, and oxtail, although the last two taste mysteriously similar. They come with two sauces for dipping, one thin and soy-based, one creamy and made from peanuts.
Oysters show the kitchen’s skill with frying and layering flavors. The giant mollusks are coated in a cornmeal batter, offering a crunch between the teeth before yielding, juicy and lush. They’re served with a refreshing, lightly spicy apple-bacon salsa, beside a pool of goat cheese fondue.
They’re one of EVOO’s classics. The restaurant’s “duck, duck, goose’’ dish is still here, too, featuring a fan of sliced goose breast topped with duck confit, a nugget of seared duck foie gras perched at the summit. The goose is tender, the meat offering up wafts of star anise and allspice, surrounded by a pool of sherry-ginger jus. Though the skin on the confit is crisp, the fat underneath isn’t completely rendered. Lentils dot the plate, and asparagus and kale offer relief from the dish’s otherwise brown palette.
Another EVOO standby arrives in a Chinese takeout container, which the server upends onto the plate with a flourish. It’s a cube of many strata: shrimp in a mustard glaze, sesame-hoisin braised beef, vegetables, cashews, and brown rice. The shrimp are nicely cooked, the beef rich and tender, the vegetables still slightly crisp, and even the brown rice is just right, chewy but not too chewy. But with all the different flavors and proteins, it seems like several stir-fries in one. Plus, it’s served with a fork, which is just wrong. Anything that comes in a Chinese takeout container should be accompanied by chopsticks in a paper sleeve.
Beef tenderloin ought to be a showpiece dish, a generous serving treated with parsley and garlic. It has a nice crust, but it’s simply not that flavorful; it needs salt. Served with uninteresting mashed potatoes speared with a large, vertical potato chip, it tastes like good banquet food. At $31, it’s EVOO’s most expensive item — nearly the same price as its three-course “home grown menu,’’ which is $38. The better deal also offers more interesting — and more EVOO-esque — flavors.
For example, seared halibut with potatoes, fiddleheads, ramps, and cilantro in curried potato broth with minted carrot salad. It’s early New England spring brushed with a light kiss from the rest of the world. The curry enhances the earthiness of the potatoes, and the mint is a breath of fresh air. It’s a smart dish, and delicious. McCarthy is now serving it with grilled mahi mahi. Proteins and vegetables enter stage left and exit stage right just as quickly, depending on the season and local availability.
One week bluefish is glazed in mustard and baked, served with onion rings and a sorrel-fennel salad. The next, scallops are seared and paired with spinach, fennel, crispy onions, and sweet pepper vinaigrette. The constant uniting the two is a smoky pig skin risotto, a work of evil genius. Who knew cracklins and classic Italian cooking belonged together?
Dessert is in season, too. One evening, there’s bright green sorrel sorbet, herbal and slightly lemony and as refreshing as sorbet should be. It’s served with sugar cookies tinged with the flavor of fennel. It’s a wonderfully springy creation. On a later visit, we’re sorry to find it’s been replaced with an overly sweet rhubarb-honey sorbet. Parsnip cake is also too sweet. Spiced like a mild gingerbread, it’s served with candied walnuts, toffee sauce, and prune-Armagnac ice cream. It tastes so much like its cousin carrot cake, it cries out for cream cheese frosting.
Beer here is largely local, but EVOO has to give in and import wine from distant lands. The list features a decent range of styles, origins, and price tags. The selections are nowhere near as quirky as the food (or the service, which alternates randomly between distracted and chummy).
The new restaurant is made up of several rooms: a modular one by the open kitchen; a more atmospheric middle room that’s darker and feels like a library, complete with shelves of cookbooks; and a long bar that connects EVOO to Za. The entrance to the bathroom is adjacent to the kitchen, leading to occasional near collisions between customers and staff. The decor feels surprisingly generic — red upholstery patterned with dots, modern canvases, clean lines. It’s more beef tenderloin than parsnip tamale with cumin rice, poblano cream, fiddlehead ferns, pickled jalapenos, cilantro, red mole, a poached egg, and crunchy tortilla bits.
But on the plate, at least, there’s plenty of character. More than a decade later, that’s still what defines EVOO, an abiding champion of local food.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.