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Dining Out

At Bergamot, each bite matters

Pea greens salad at Bergamot Above: a salad of pea greens with peas, Berkshire ham, thin shavings of Pecorino, and a fried egg coated in a crisp panko. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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Servio Garcia could have made a hell of a telemarketer. Or politician or con man or hostage-situation-breaker-upper. When he answers the phone at Bergamot, he broadcasts sincerity through the wires. It travels into your ear and warms you, leaving you flattered when you hang up, reservation written in black ink on a scrap of paper. “Hey, honey. I think that guy really wants us to come to dinner. I don’t think he’s putting it on.’’ His hospitality is convincing. When he says “We look forward to seeing you,’’ you believe it. When he says “Welcome,’’ you feel welcomed. As general manager, he’s using his powers of persuasion for good. You wind up well fed at the end of each transaction — not possessing an unwanted set of encyclopedias, vial of snake oil, or deed to a piece of land that does not exist.

Bergamot, in Somerville, is an intimate restaurant, in the best way possible. Its staff makes each exchange and each bite matter. Long ago, my driver’s ed teacher, a shaggy white guy saddled with the name Eddie Murphy, would speak obsessively about the “moment of inattention.’’ That’s what would get us killed, he’d warn in an intense whisper. Cumulative moments of inattention are what get restaurants killed. Bergamot has an eye on everything.

You can tell by the bread, one measure of how much a restaurant cares. If the bread is stale, cold, just downright bad, it does not augur well. It’s viewed as incidental, a freebie. But nine times out of 10, if the bread is delicious — a welcome mat, a stepping stone to all that follows — your meal will be too. A good restaurant knows nothing is incidental. Bergamot’s bread is spectacular, a fragrant house-made focaccia that might be studded with olives one day, topped with caramelized lemon slices another. You might be tempted to make an entire meal of it, and they’ll let you — offering more until you refuse out of a sense of decency.

You can tell by the wine, which always comes at the right temperature — even when it’s a red by the glass. It’s a “True Blood’’ world out there, and restaurants seem to want to serve crimson liquids at a sanguine warmth. Wine director Kai Gagnon is scrupulous, obsessive. He has a dual-zone refrigerator behind the bar. Your pour of Beaujolais will be exactly 55 degrees, a more robust red 3 degrees warmer. (For more on Gagnon, see Page 3.)

You can tell by the service, which just begins at filling your water glass (still, house-filtered, or house-carbonated?) and taking your order. It extends to detailed explanations of dishes, informed answers to questions, excellent recommendations, banter if you’re in the mood, handwritten recipes for the lovely house cocktails if you should desire. For queries about wine, they’ll send over Gagnon, who will interview you briefly then suggest just the thing at just the right price range. It will be a bottle he feels passionate about, because he seems to feel passionate about every bottle in the house. But if you’re lucky it will be a Bandol or chenin blanc; these are currently showcased in their own sections on the wine list, allowing a regular diner to experience myriad expressions of the same region or grape.

By the time you get to the food, you are primed. Will it be good? Magic 8-Ball says “Signs point to yes.’’

It is very good. Chef Keith Pooler, who owns the restaurant with Garcia, has worked at restaurants such as Scampo, Excelsior, and Harvest. He calls his cuisine “progressive American.’’ It could just as well be “inventive European.’’ Dishes showcase classic, solid technique; the excitement comes from the way New World and Old World ingredients and presentations are combined.

The meal begins with the arrival of an amuse-bouche, a freebie, far from incidental. This might be chicken confit with arugula pesto and the most delicately diced golden beets, or crab ceviche, or barbecued lamb belly.

One visit brings sardines fresh and mild; they are served with peas mashed with a fork, dosed heftily with marjoram. Fingerling potatoes, marinated red onions, a crumble of egg yolk, and a drizzle of olive oil complete the dish. (A similar dish is now made with mackerel, as Bergamot couldn’t reliably get high-quality sardines.)

Sole escabeche features fish floured, fried, then marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. The light sourness is offset by crisp bits of prosciutto, fava beans, pine nuts, hardboiled egg vinaigrette, and fried celery leaves. The flavors are alternately rich and springy.

The duck, duck, duck salad is a subtle salute to EVOO, the restaurant that occupied this space before Bergamot; it’s known for a dish called “duck, duck, goose.’’ Bergamot’s dish features duck confit, duck prosciutto, and crunchy duck cracklins piled high with frisee, a relish of bell peppers and chilies, sheep’s milk cheese, and a smoky sherry vinaigrette. It’s Spanish. Kind of sort of.

Another stellar salad is made up of pea greens with peas, Berkshire ham, thin shavings of Pecorino, and a fried egg coated in crisp panko. The yolk is overcooked, just past runny, but the dish remains memorable for its flavors. “I love that salad,’’ the person who orders it is still murmuring, dreamily, hours after we’ve left the restaurant.

Why don’t more people make gnocchi with plantains? Starchy and potato-like, they’re a natural base for the Italian dumplings. These may be an improvement on the original, fried so the centers are soft and the outsides crisp. Fix them up with black beans, avocado, roasted red pepper, cilantro, and more, and they’re not Italian anymore. They’re just delicious. They’d be a perfect vegetarian entree for Thanksgiving — Columbus meets the Americas.

Pork tenderloin pulls a similar trick, merging Asian, Mexican, and South American flavors. It comes with sweet-and-sour eggplant, glazed with ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce, and more; a mixture of Japanese shishito peppers and cream cheese Pooler says later is inspired by chili con queso; and chicharron, pork belly that’s been scored, marinated, and deep-fried.

More classic is halibut, overcooked and slightly oversalted one night but served with an expertly balanced sauce. Made with halibut fume, cream, and butter, it’s scented with the faint licorice flavor of the herb cicely. The fish comes with sweet baby carrots and potatoes.

A bar at the back of the warm-hued little room features a menu of its own. Chicharron appears there one night, too, in a dish called “bacon and egg,’’ the details of which change frequently. Fried egg and spicy cabbage slaw complement the fatty-crisp pork. Couple this dish with a killer lobster melt ($9 and $10, respectively), and you’ve got some of the better bar food around — at a restaurant you wouldn’t necessarily expect to have a bar menu.

Pastry chef Stacy Mirabello matches Pooler note for note. Desserts change frequently with the seasons. A Meyer lemon pudding cake, accompanied by the unlikely yet completely simpatico pairing of coconut sorbet and toasted quinoa, is gone. But flourless chocolate cake stays, and finally — finally — shows its personality. The chocolate is goosed with a warming dose of guajillo chili. It comes with ice cream made from Left Hand milk stout, apricot caramel, and pretzel sticks — sweet, salty, and spicy.

Attentive even after the meal is over, Bergamot brings you one last bite: a pate de fruit in ever-changing fruit flavors, such as plum or spicy mango.

This is a restaurant that sets out to be good to people, to serve them deliciously and charge them reasonably, to make them feel cared for and comfortable. The food is often playful, the atmosphere relaxed (you can join the staff for Sunday dodgeball in the parking lot). But the hospitality is serious. It all combines to make Bergamot a place you want to eat. Soon. And then again.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

BERGAMOT

118 Beacon St., Somerville. 617-576-7700. www.bergamotrestaurant.com.

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $9-$13. Entrees $19-$27. Dessert $9-$14. Three-course prix fixe $39 before 7 p.m.

Hours Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m. Bar menu nightly till midnight, bar till 1 a.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Sole escabeche, pea green salad, trout, halibut, gnocchi, pork, guajillo chili chocolate pave.