Some restaurants open with a bang: celebrity chef! PR blitz! Line of food-blog followers out the door opening night! Others go about quietly being awesome and let people figure it out for themselves. People have figured out Fairsted Kitchen, and gone are the Friday evenings one could walk in and find elbow room at this little spot in Brookline’s Washington Square. This is a wonderful thing, because it is a wonderful restaurant.
Co-owners Steve Bowman (Menton, Russell House Tavern) and Andrew Foster (Il Casale, Deuxave, Russell House) take everything they know about fine dining and service and use their powers for good: to create a truly warm experience. The 47-seat restaurant, which opened in October, takes its name from landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s nearby estate, Fairsted. It feels like the dining room in an old New England house. Walls are painted and papered in rich tones — turquoise, gold — and schoolhouse pendants hang from the ceiling. China and tableware were found at flea markets, and each visit brings new, charming, mismatched pieces: flowered saucers, sugar tongs shaped like chicken feet, a gravy boat used to pour an Alamagoozlum for Two, a frothy classic cocktail containing bitters and egg white that J. P. Morgan was said to enjoy.
The menu emphasizes family-style dining, with platters for the table to share — say, a whole oxtail, or monkfish, or chateaubriand. This is a thing now in area restaurants, but Fairsted Kitchen actually evokes the feeling of eating with family. Before the oxtail arrives, there is a big bowl of green salad to pass around, the sort of thing someone’s mother might make to ensure everyone eats their vegetables. And the oxtail — whole, stretched along the platter — is glorious. It’s braised into extreme tenderness, served with tender turnips, sweet carrots, and a deeply fragrant rosemary-red wine reduction. On the side are arancini, crisp shells giving way to creamy rice with each bite. Bowman spots a group tucking in one evening and beams. “I just love it when I see people eating the oxtail,” he says. “It is exactly what we imagined the restaurant to be like.”
It is this kind of interaction that makes Fairsted Kitchen so charming, so cozy. It is the sort of hospitality one can’t fake; try and it comes off as ridiculous, an owner strutting about. Bowman, Foster, and barman Patrick Gaggiano (“master of ceremonies” is his official title) are genuinely welcoming. They are fish in the water at the front of the house, enjoying their customers, enjoying themselves. “We sometimes tell each other to go home, but no one does,” Foster says one night. There are so many restaurants serving great food — many in this neighborhood, in fact. But it’s rare to find a place that brings customers into the fold this way, making them feel like old friends after the first visit.
Of course, none of it works without the great food. Executive chef W. Scott Osif, previously of Nantucket’s Galley Beach, labors unseen in the back. He should emerge at the end of the night for a bow and a drink. It’s a strange thing to attend such a convivial dinner party and never meet the cook. In addition to the big plates of homey oxtail and elegant monkfish — dusted with North African spices and served with chive potatoes, wild mushrooms, and cauliflower — there are clever and compelling snacks and small plates, as well as standard-size entrees. Osif delights in remixing the flavors of the world. Croquettes straddle Spain and Morocco, made with ham hock and harissa emulsion. A crisp tart shell is filled with farmers’ market celeriac and potato, sushi bar sea urchin and shiso. The combination is unlikely and intriguing, although the tubers need seasoning. Equally unusual: white beans with squid and butternut squash, which one stirs together with ink aioli. They’re black beans now.
Dishes Bubbe might have made appear, a nod to Brookline, says Bowman, who grew up here. But the cabbage rolls with veal and black-pepper bechamel are suspiciously bright green and crisp, and the duck fat-fried potato cake with yogurt and paprika is awfully sophisticated for a latke. A potato pancake is included, too, in a gorgeous dish of smoked duck with red cabbage. For pure comfort, it is hard to beat chewy, herb-flecked spatzle with lots of Gruyere and rabbit confit. Not everything works as well; a kale salad is the kind of plain home-cooking you might just as well save for dinners at home, for instance, and maitake mushrooms are bland.
Some of the most addictive dishes look to Asia. Lamb ribs are dusted in cumin and deeply charred; what makes them so good is the spicy vinegar fish sauce for dipping. One night we find a special of hot-and-sour soup made with tripe and tongue, the organ meat anchoring the boldly flavored broth. A main course features grilled wagyu zabuton, an unusual cut of Japanese-style beef. (“Zabuton” means “pillow” in Japanese.) Deeply marbled, the zabuton has some of the flavor of aged steak, some of the tenderness of short rib. And perhaps the best $5 bar snack in town is Fairsted’s pig head lettuce wrap, the pork breaded and fried into a crisp puck, then wrapped in a leaf with carrot, daikon, and cilantro. It’s spicy; it’s refreshing; it’s just right with a cocktail.
And a cocktail you must have, because Fairsted Kitchen’s bar program is one of its biggest strengths. The No Sleep Till Brookline, to name one, perfectly balances bourbon and bitters, sugar and citrus. There is a rotating selection of fizzy, bottled potions, along with an offering on draft — say the Bijou, with gin and sweet vermouth. And proceeds from the vin d’orange, a draft aperitif made with rose and cognac, go to bartender Alex Homans, out of work since a bicycle accident.
It’s a small bar, and the tap offerings are focused: four selections from Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham. The glass list features some out-of-the-ordinary wines, such as the 2010 Dingac Peljesac from Croatia. Bowman isn’t just an eager host. He’s also the sommelier, and a fine one, steering the table to the perfect nebbiolo or zweigelt for the meal. With ingredients and bottles both, the staff here seeks out the unusual.
There are just a few offerings for dessert each night, but all are worth sampling. The flavors of pumpkin custard with peppermint cream shouldn’t work, but they do; ginger biscotti on the side are crisp and elegant.
Above all, Fairsted Kitchen’s specialty is TLC. The restaurant has so much heart. It deserves to be loved in return.
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