With apologies to men who say the Square Café in downtown Hingham is their favorite restaurant — including the self-professed regular at the bar who implored my companions and me to try the sirloin special — there’s something undeniably feminine about the nine-year-old eatery that aptly describes itself as an American bistro.
That could be because Patty Libby is involved in every aspect of its operation, from design to menu planning. It also could be because the head chef is the impossibly young (29) Andrea Schnell.
Or maybe it’s the sunny decor. The dining room was designed by Peter Niemitz, who is responsible for Boston’s Grill 23 and Top of the Hub, as well as Hingham’s Tosca, but Libby was closely involved in the restaurant’s design.
Another reason might be that the Square Café often draws large groups of women, most who appear to be celebrating something.
I brought four women friends on a recent Thursday evening, and the festive mood of the bar crowd made us all feel we were there to celebrate.
The narrow dining room is both cheerful and soothing, with green-and-yellow plaid banquettes, pale green walls, and a row of half-curtained windows with views of North Street. A huge mirror between two large windows against the far well helps create the illusion of a bigger room.
The staff prides itself on dishes that range from casual (the Square burger, $15) to upscale (Szechuan-lacquered monkfish fillets, $21). Schnell describes the food as American cuisine with an Asian-French flair, and says she is committed to using local ingredients and to adjusting the menu with the seasons.
The menu is divided into three sections: cafe, which includes burgers, sandwiches, salads and appetizers; small plates, with such dishes as roasted pork tenderloin ($20) and grilled flat iron steak ($21); and large plates, traditionally sized entrees of meat, poultry, and fish.
We decided to share our dishes so we could sample everything tapas-style. It was an unusual strategy in a place that is fairly traditional, but our server was happy to accommodate our plan.
We started with shrimp and fresh vegetable tempura ($13), which included spinach and baby carrots as well as tail-on shrimp so lightly fried its flavors nearly burst through the thin, slightly sweet crust. Next came crab and lobster cakes ($16). It’s hard to find a bad crab cake, but this rendition, served with a green papaya salad and sesame butter sauce, takes the dish to a new level of delicious.
My favorite appetizer was yellowfin tuna two ways ($16) — two discs of barely seared, peppery tuna, one served tartare, the other with soy sauce and citrus. The small dish, with mango slices and seaweed salad on the side, was so nearly perfect I was tempted to order the grilled yellowfin tuna entrée ($31), but resisted in the interest of variety.
The toasted red and yellow beet salad ($13), combined blue cheese, candied pecans, and arugula, and was almost too pretty to eat. We enjoyed it so much we ordered a second. The romaine salad ($9), essentially a Caesar, with anchovies, creamy dressing, and sourdough croutons, also drew high marks.
The small-plate menu’s muscovy duck breast ($22), in Thai butter sauce, was melt-in-your-mouth succulent, and the curried polenta fries on the side could very well beat out sweet potato as the hot new variation on the staple French fry.
Our second small plate was lamb skewers ($18), one of that evening’s specials. After sampling the tender and delicately-flavored meat, marinated and grilled with an array of spring vegetables and a side of savory rice, I realized we might not find anything to criticize about this meal.
And we didn’t. Our three large plates were equally pleasing. The aforementioned sirloin special ($32) was generous, cooked to our specifications (medium well-done), and complemented by garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus.
Our strongest raves probably went to two mainstays. The local sea scallops ($27), served in tangerine and lime-butter sauce, were crispy on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside, with basil rice and stir-fried mustard greens. And the Georges Bank swordfish (also $27) — an Italian-style dish with pesto, tomato, and caper sauce — accompanied by fried baby artichokes, was a unanimous hit.
We rounded out the superb meal with two desserts — molten chocolate cake ($9) and carrot cake ($8.50). We found no fault with either, though by that time we were actively trying.
The Square Café isn’t cheap, but in our view the prices were reasonable for truly remarkable food and wine. (The imaginative wine list has garnered several Wine Spectator awards for its creator, Robert Doherty, who has managed the restaurant since it opened in December 2001).
The place is also a popular lunch spot, with a menu that offers more sandwiches and salads (some topped with meat or fish from the dinner menu) at prices better suited to a midday meal.
The only improvement I can see would be serving food and drink at the tables that currently decorate the sidewalk in front of the building. But that’s not likely to happen, since the church across the street vetoed the proposal a few years back. It’s a shame, because dining al fresco here would really be cause for celebration.