What delicate work is the restaurant business. Getting everything just right is like threading a fine-eyed needle; the silk is either in or it’s not.
Bondir Concord is the second installment of the Cambridge restaurant with which it shares a name. Chef-owner Jason Bond opened the first three years ago, and it was close to perfect. The menu, eternally local, changed each night, and each night it brought delightful surprises: house-made cavatelli with venison ragu, enriched with red wine, liver, and the unexpected bitter bite of cocoa nibs; seared Scituate scallops with bright green celery puree and tender roasted radishes, two garden-variety vegetables rescued at once from the ordinary; Wagyu beef sauerbraten with carrots, sweet-and-sour red cabbage, and peppery, jammy pears. The 28-seat room was cozy, rustic yet chic. The hospitality was as warm as a spot by the fireside. When the staff heated up our coats before the flames ahead of our departure, it wasn’t a showy gesture, just an uncommonly thoughtful one.
Things are very much the same at the new, 100-seat Bondir, the best thing to happen to Concord-area dining in some time (to be precise, since 80 Thoreau opened in 2011). The food is often delicious, the staff welcoming, the decor a similar mix of antique and modern, this time with a whiff of olde New England. The warren-like space — a bar area leads to a cozy room with a fireplace and a view of the open kitchen, which in turn gives way to a more-formal dining room — is outfitted with wood tables, benches with firewood stowed beneath, antique card catalogs and quilts, and an enormous, impressive jewel-toned painting of fowl.
Yet somehow it doesn’t feel quite as magical.
In part this is because so much is the same. The element of surprise is absent. Anyone who has eaten at the first Bondir will find the food at the second one familiar. Winter squash soup with Sichuan pepper and ras el hanout marshmallow is a fine bowl, cozily spicy, with bites of marshmallow sweetness. Diners have had a similar soup in Cambridge. Bitter cocoa casarecce, if somewhat wormlike in color and shape, have good texture and flavor, served with mutton ragu one visit, beef Bolognese another. Nibs are included in both dishes, and although their flavor is enjoyable, it no longer seems as striking as it did in that venison ragu circa 2011. Cocoa nibs appear in many restaurant dishes today. Food, like language, evolves.
Of course, there is great pleasure in conversing with old friends, and in eating wonderful dishes again and again. But the cooking at the new Bondir isn’t always as exact as one would wish. Venison with grits, Brussels sprouts, and dilly bean relish is a dull dish; the bright relish is the main point of interest. Lobster coquillage is a collage of many ingredients that don’t add up — a bland piece of fluke, black radish, crumbles of black olive that lodge under the tongue, and an oyster of indeterminate temperature. Is it cold and raw or warm and cooked? Neither, quite. It’s sweaty. In terms of flavor, there is no evidence of the most interesting ingredients in the dish — grapefruit, smoked roe, lobster, for that matter.
And menus can lean too heavily on the same arsenal of warm, wintry spices, with nutmeggy, molasses-y flavors potentially dominating the meal. Monkfish from Scituate is poached in olive oil, dense yet tender, served with creamed greens, roasted fennel, Boston brown bread, and rutabaga molasses puree. (A more recent variation featured olive oil-poached tilefish with braised burdock root, hearts of palm, and cara cara orange vinaigrette.) An elegantly plated duck dish riffs on cassoulet, with roast breast and confit leg, baked heirloom Marfax beans, bacon-braised carrots, and black walnut bran muffin. The dishes are both excellent, yet unexpectedly repetitive side by side.
There are many lovely things to eat here. The bread always amazes, in varieties such as warthog wheat with sprouted spelt berries and sourdough with cranberries and hops. Pasta is a strength — the casarecce; black trumpet mushroom agnolotti, gorgeous wrapped packages of bosky flavor, perfectly al dente, with butternut squash, yellowfoot mushrooms, spruce ricotta, and mint, a mix of bracing and rich. A little sweet potato custard tart is served in an almond flour crust one night, an oat flour crust another, generally with some form of the Ethiopian staple teff, chestnuts, seasonal vegetables, and mustard oil. Whatever the accompaniments, it is worth ordering. And the kitchen, where Bond has been a constant presence along with executive sous chef Rachel Miller, has been shaving black Perigord truffles with a generous hand. (Miller was previously at Bondir in Cambridge; that kitchen is now overseen by Marc Sheehan of the highly regarded pop-up Brasstacks.) For a splurge, try the truffles with a decadent potato souffle with kale, chiles, and thyme. As with the Cambridge restaurant, the Concord branch of Bondir offers half or full portions of many dishes, always a welcome option.
Dessert is a work in progress, ranging from perfectly pleasant (chocolate mousse with quince and lime) to fairly weird (a highly interpretive version of French dessert coeur a la crème, made with Chambord caramel-poached sunchokes, gingerbread, and lemon curd). One evening, we sample a juniper-and-whey sherbet that tastes like something stored too long in a musty attic. Our server graciously removes it from our bill.
And servers here are gracious. They know the wine, mostly Old World in style, and the list of well-made cocktails. They know the food. But there is often an odd mix of over-the-top attention and forgetfulness. After being greeted profusely, one might wait a good long while for the chance to order a cocktail, then be complimented profusely for one’s choice, then wait a good long while more until that cocktail actually materializes. While one server carefully, thoughtfully courses out a complicated order, another comments: “That’s a lot of food.” Well, yes.
Sequels seldom rival first installments. Yet Bondir stands on its own in Concord, with an extremely convivial bar scene, a highly personalized experience, and food that is often wonderful, if not always magical. What delicate work is the restaurant business.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.