How is that place doing these days, anyway?
It is something a restaurant critic often wonders. After allowing a new business eight weeks or so to get on its feet, in we sweep, to eat a few dinners, digest the experience, and attempt to capture it in a handful of paragraphs. The resulting review is a time capsule: This is how a restaurant functioned in its early days, during a period when the staff was still getting things sorted and the people in charge knew that critics would be in. Then we don’t return until something major happens: a new chef, a new concept, a milestone anniversary.
But the real measure of a restaurant is how it fits into its neighborhood’s fabric in a lasting way, when the basics have been mastered, the reviewers have gone, and the restaurateurs have let their guard down. Is the place consistent? Does it keep getting better? Or does quality plummet? Bringing one’s A game and maintaining it over time are two very different things.
And so, from time to time in this space, we will be dropping in on restaurants that might not be ready for a full, official re-review but that merit a pulse-taking. First up: Bergamot in Somerville and Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, two neighborhood bistros that offer a more-than-average neighborhood-bistro experience.
When I reviewed Bergamot in 2010, I gave it 3½ stars, lauding it for its attention to detail. The bread was delicious. The wine was served at the right temperature, and the list was thrilling, obviously born of passion, not duty. The service was unusually attuned, leaving you feeling you’d had a pleasant chat with a like-minded individual, having been neither unctuously flattered nor overlooked; general manager Servio Garcia was one of the most genuinely hospitable people in the business. And chef Keith Pooler’s food was inventive, well prepared, and highly delicious.
It hasn’t lost a step.
A recent dinner brings ravioli filled with lamb, pleasantly gamy and assertively spiced, adorned with curls of Parmesan and resting in a pool of lamb jus; the flavors are lightened with fava beans, pine nuts, and the herb calamintha. Andalusian gazpacho features tender calamari, sausage, chickpeas, and mizuna; the gazpacho itself is more of a sauce than a soup, applied sparingly yet imparting the flavors of a summer garden. And a salad of roasted peaches with crisped ham, fromage blanc, and local greens becomes more than just a pleasant, seasonal starter with the inclusion of crumbled, buttery black-pepper shortbread.
A piece of cod, beautifully roasted, comes with tiny, sweet clams, chanterelles, braised kohlrabi, diced tomatoes, and a buttery, herb-flecked sauce. It is fresh and elegant, with flavors that speak of New England and techniques that look to France. Soft-shell crab, encased in crisp batter, is juicy and sweet, served over bucatini with cherry tomatoes, Jonah crab meat, and crunchy bits of garlic bread. It’s less refined but tastes great. And the simplest dish, creamed mushrooms over grilled bread, is a humdinger, with tender, woodsy morels, chanterelles, and maitake mushrooms; a rich sauce; brightly flavored pea greens; and tangy, pink rings of pickled leek.
Desserts are more esoteric these days, and less successful. Current pastry chef Kelcey Rusch’s online bio notes her “strong affection for the savoury,” and that is clear. Roasted plums are served with green tea-almond cream, adzuki bean, and kasha ice cream, a fascinating construction: That ice cream does taste exactly like the grain you may know as knish filling. I’m not sorry I ate it, but I’m not sure I need to repeat the experience. A riff on Southern banana pudding, made with chocolate wafers, miso-butterscotch pudding, candied peanuts, and burnt caramel-chocolate ice cream, is still unusual yet just a bit sweeter and more accessible.
The beverage program is as strong as ever, particularly when it comes to wine. (Cocktails are great, too, but beer feels like less of a focus.) There isn’t another list like wine director Kai Gagnon’s in town, and I’ve never had a selection from it that was less than intriguing. Servers steer diners toward things they might never have considered on their own, and prove to be right: A bottle of white from Catania in Sicily, from the section of the list titled “some of our current favorites,” might now be one of mine.
Bergamot maintains its comfortable excellence. If you are looking for a place to have a very nice dinner, high in quality yet free of pretension, it is a fine choice. This is also promising for the future: The team is set to open a new restaurant, BISq, in the fall. (The name stands for “Bergamot in Inman Square,” where it will be located.) Gagnon will be general manager and continue as wine director at both restaurants, and current Bergamot chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti will be in the kitchen.
Across the river in Jamaica Plain, restaurateur Krista Kranyak has operated Ten Tables since 2002. (There is another Ten Tables in Cambridge, and a Provincetown location has since closed.) In 2008, I wrote a swoony love letter to the place just before Valentine’s Day, giving it 3 stars. Since then, chefs have changed several times (Eric Cooper is now executive chef), and the restaurant has expanded, adding a bar area in the adjacent space.
The bar has been a huge boon, allowing people to drop by for a casual visit, perhaps involving one of the justly renowned burgers and a beer from the list of mostly locals. Distinctive cocktails incorporate the likes of house-made lovage bitters or hay-infused white whiskey. General manager Stan Hilbert’s wine list is a pleasure to explore, filled with mostly Old World gems. And there is more to the bar menu than burgers: spicy cheddar dip with carrots and caraway-studded flatbread; a simple but deeply satisfying dish of sugar snap peas served with pickled garlic mayonnaise and smoked sea salt; fish sausage with lentils, fennel, and (a bit too much) bacon.
On a recent evening, in fact, the food on the bar side overshadows that in the dining room. A cold soup of purple carrots is a glorious hue, swirled with tarragon crème fraiche and sprinkled with pepitas. But it tastes comparatively wan, like carrots, plain and simple. A vegetarian couscous dish is stocked with good flavors — butter-infused zucchini, nutty sunchokes (undercooked), raisins, sunflower sprouts, and Moroccan spices — and enriched with a bit of yogurt. Hanger steak is nicely cooked but in need of salt.
For dessert, sweet corn pudding comes with cornbread brittle, a great idea that humidity gets the best of: The brittle is impossibly chewy. Combined with the blueberries and walnuts on the plate, one is left with the impression of a somewhat earnest breakfast. And a cucumber semifreddo is a disaster. There is nothing semi- about it. It is frozen nearly solid, so one must either gnaw on it or wait for it to thaw.
Ten Tables feels less settled than it has in the past. Cooper is relatively new to the post. And while many restaurants have events and specials designed to fill seats during the week, Ten Tables takes this to an extreme, with something on most nights of the week. It is fun, but it can blur the focus. Perhaps a visit here is simply becoming more of an everyday pleasure than a special treat. Even so, the restaurant remains one of Jamaica Plain’s all-around best.
Bergamot, 118 Beacon St., Somerville. 617-576-7700. www.bergamotrestaurant.com
Ten Tables, 597 Centre St., Jamaica Plain. 617-524-8810. www.tentables.netDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.