When the wheels grind to a halt on Logan’s airstrip and the seatbelt signs go blank, a numbness comes over me. Should I check in as “home” or not? Am I enthusiastic or anxious? Each trip to Boston comes with its own unique ratio of good things to bad things, a mixed bag of past demons and positive developments. I never know how it will go until I’m in the very midst of it. During my Thanksgiving “break” I did nothing but watch Orange Is the New Black episodes back-to-back on Netflix, my feet dangling lazily off my childhood twin. I blew off, or at least didn’t really connect with, friends whom I wouldn’t get the chance to see for a while. I didn’t take enlightening strolls around the old stomping grounds. My mom asked me what I wanted her to cook and I told her I didn’t care. And I avoided those places that make me feel good about being home. It must have been a form of self-sabotage not to at least get a slice of mashed potato and scallion at OTTO’s or a shot of hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick. Or anything, anything at Craigie.
I’ve said it all before but can also afford to restate it. This is the place that makes me happiest in Cambridge-Boston, consistently and no matter what. The specific reason is intangible, but there are a few things that come together to make it happen. The scrutiny of chef and sous chef hovering over each plate that comes down the line. The sounds, the warm lights. My mother’s eyebrows furrowing with concentration as I read off the cocktail list, since she forgot her glasses at home. There are hints of cardamom peeking out, pokin’ ya and then running away with fierce glee. There are sinful, fatty, pork-y things but clean, poached and stewed things too. Nose to tail is the basis, not a gimmick. Seasonal and local is just kind of understood, not glorified as innovative in any way. And sometimes, when it’s better for it to be, it’s imported. There’s a sense of adventure, creativity and intelligent humor in each dish. The ingredients and methods seem to be cherished by pretty much everyone working there, a sort of goofy inside joke that stretches from the inner depths of the kitchen to the cool, shiny host stand. And while dining there one feels temporarily let in on that inside joke. The juices of that burger; the texture of that marrow; the angostura in that cocktail I’ve never heard of but which does in fact complement both my mood and dish perfectly. Watermelon radishes. These little tricks make me want to point at whoever is responsible for them as if to say “Hey! Good one…”
It’s obvious how much effort and concentration go into each thing served, but the quality of the food and libations does not come at the expense of comfort. There’s nothing snooty or haughty about anyone or anything, despite the obvious success of the restaurant. The dishes are pretty but they are meant to be ripped apart and enjoyed, not carefully disassembled. There’s something delightfully off-kilter but honest about the entire experience that has drawn me back to that barstool like the proverbial moth to the flame. (The citrus twist lighting cocktail flame, that is.) Lover of all things genuine and good, my mom joins me often and it’s the place where we feel comfortable discussing topics that just don’t seem to flow as much in her Somerville Victorian. This past Christmas “break” we wound up at the bar at Craigie again. A pair of amuse-bouches made their way to us and served as great distractions from the black cardamom, black cherry, smoked paprika, Aqua Vit creation that I hope, after some fine-tuning, will one day be called “The Lili” or at least “The Bitter Old Eastern European Lady”. There was something called a rabbit porchetta, a happy by-product of making rabbit sausage, which I understood to be a rather time-consuming cycle of stuffing things into other things and cooking them at various stages. It wasn’t really a classic porchetta in that there was no meat or stuffing rolled up with skin and fat. In actuality, it was a tender little piece of jiggling bunny belly seasoned lightly to not hide the mild flavor and rolled over itself to suggest porchetta. A tiny plashet of tart, red cranberry soup at the base and a single fat berry quietly exerting a dictatorial presence over the meat. A rather etherial looking mound of scallop was served with toasted hazelnuts, whose tanned, nutty flavors vibed well with the aromatic cold smoke licking the surface of the delicate marine flesh. A bashful Beech mushroom peeked timidly out of and then camouflaged back into the translucent, milky-white bosom of the scallop. It worked texturally, as the hazelnut was left in large halves, providing a meaty crunch to offset the slippery smoothness of the rest.
Then came a half dozen South Bay Blonde oysters whose murky, gunky, wintertime brine was expertly balanced out with a mature candied lemon mignonette. The flavors of the latter had developed and ripened through a process of repeated heating, reducing and adding simple syrup. The sugars inside the lemon had caramelized and turned nectarous and round. I don’t know too much about South Bay or its blondes, but there was definitely nothing dumb about these ladies. They were especially genteel when paired with a white Crémant from Jura named Champ Divin. A Chardonnay – yeah – but piercingly dry and cool at intake, with a softer carbonation allowing for ripe pear flavors to burst forth between the bubbles. There was also a hard but slippery stone quality which hinted at a cold, wet terrain like a gust of cool, clean wind tasting one’s face at a high altitude. And it slid off the tongue buttery smooth. A wonderfully complex wine and exactly the type my mother and I both go for. I took the first sip and waited for her reaction, just as I used to watch her laugh at funny scenes on TV when I was a child. A dish that never goes unmentioned when I rattle off reasons why anyone visiting Cambridge-Boston should stop by Craigie is the Spanish Octopus à la Plancha. A single tentacle tenderized and preserved in oil for its trans-Atlantic journey, tanned to a beautiful char and dressed in a variety of brightly colored outfits. I’ve had it before with its smokey chorizo puree, briny green olive and the soft slices of heart of palm that pair so perfectly to the texture of its meat. This time it appeared in a breezy sundress, with the same stately rounds of heart of palm, a pool of creamy green pepper romesco, some citrussy pickled scallion and strands of red onion, a brilliant slice of watermelon radish. Sweet Cubanelles and Anaheim peppers with toasty ground almond made for a nice puree with a hummus-type consistency, a mild heat and more smoke. The texture of the octopus is the main thing here though, that tight yet supple flesh without a trace of overcooked seafood chew. The clean, soft meat is speckled with firm suction cups that are dipped in a bitter, nutty, smokey char. That char is lifted up by the freshness of the citric salad. It’s always just as great as I expect it to be. We had the House-Made Pâté de Campagne, a single large slab of wonderfully crumbly belly and face meat and liver. I enjoyed that the focus of the dish landed on a single creation and preferred this to their past assiette of terrines, which included smaller chunks of country terrine along with a foie torchon and a headcheese. Tasting boards are cool, but adopting a single terrine as your forcemeat of the night feels cozier, definitely more satisfying when it has to be shared. It turned our attention to the quality of the one and to the accoutrements scattered over the plate, each one taking the meats in a different taste direction. The pâté on its own was very tasty, flavored with Armagnac, despite it being mostly pork and not duck. It was smooth in some parts and chunky in others, fatty all throughout. There was a ribbon of house-cured pork belly introducing a bit of aged funk, along with some wine vinegar pickled onion ringlets that added even more maturity to the dish. A jammy sauce of dates and sickly sweet Maury wine appeared at the base; this was my mom’s favorite thing of the night. There was a juicy relish of cornichons and shallots pickled in and saturated with red wine vinegar. There was a whole grain mustard whose floral heat and beady texture was a pleasure for the tongue. There was also a Passover time charoset, a mish-mash of raisins and nuts and apple-autumn spices as well as my favorite, a smooth mustard with a powerful kick of caraway. My mom remarked how like a painter’s palette this dish looked. I’m happy the cavas has become the terrine itself.And then there’s the burger, which is good on its own but even better in that it is the most well known dish at a place that makes its own smoked rabbit sausage just to pop it into a pumpkin soup. The mums and I were lucky enough to nab the penultimate burger of the night. The patties were 86-ed a few seconds later when the guy next to us heard we had left one available and claimed it without hesitation. I’ve already discussed ad nauseam the what and the how when it comes to the Craigie burger – the marrow fat, suit, dry miso and “fluffy” grind. Sear drippings are preserved and sprinkled atop the bun, the lettuce is dressed in the grill sweat as well. And it all shows. The meat looks a healthy red even when cooked to medium and the juices flooding the mouth with each bite have enough flavor to stay on one’s palate for hours, if not days. Celery root slaw, red wine pickles and homemade ketchup offer up their flavors and textures, but typically end up eaten as a side rather than actually placed atop the already pretty stellar patty. The steak fries are beefy and crispy all throughout without a hint of extra grease or the burden of clumpy starch. Wonderful always and still cool despite getting nerdy with its ingredients.
The dishes did not get my undivided attention on this night, as the focus shifted frequently to the glasses placed in front of me and what had gone into them. A series of deft movements behind the bar produced cocktail upon cocktail that matched my mood more so than whatever dish I was hung up on in the moment. There was a round, brown, nutty, Bourbony beast with sweetness and wood and citrus peel, a familiar monster. There was a thing with Fernet Menta bound for my mom which ended up with me because of her bizarre intolerance of mint. But she got her smokey mezcal (or aged tequila?) creation which also happened to be the first one ever made for her at Craigie. And then a Negroni, my favorite maybe. A perfect rendition of that bittersweet Italian babe, a sexy vamp that reminded me of a past identity in Argentina. I mentioned having had a delightfully artificial tiki drink the night before and was offered a taste of real, clear curaçao by our gracious bartender. I might have tried sunchoke liquor, or was I just imagining it?
As it turns out my trip home was pretty great this time around. There were meaningful moments with family and friends, fresh new acquaintances and old standby’s. There were plenty of walks around old stomping grounds and even a tour of the Taza Chocolate factory. There was inner peace. Maybe there’s something to say for getting into the right frame of mind before setting out to re-explore ones past in the present. Craigie on Main seems to get me there each time.