Some restaurant nights are pure magic. In the right space and time, you can slip into suspended reality for a couple of hours and shed your quotidian coils. The mood, the lighting, the hum of shared humanity, and of course the food: When it hits, it hits. You’re not you for a little bit — or, if the drinks are strong, you’re an even better version of you — and that feels good. Especially now.
And so this is the state in which I found myself on the cozy patio at Bar Enza last week, new at the Charles Hotel. It’s an auspicious location for a restaurant, inside the old Rialto space, where Jody Adams held court among a cast of sophisticated Cantabrigians just a few years ago. That restaurant bottled the essence of Harvard Square in all its professorial yet bohemian glory. It was the kind of place where the person who shuffled in with glasses askew in a threadbare suit might actually be a millionaire; a place where eccentricity mingled with classic good taste co-existed with a quiet understanding.
But then it was gone, like Locke-Ober, and Radius, and all the other bastions of fine-dining that seemed out of step with a culinary landscape sliding toward quick-service grain bowls ordered by app.
For a short time Benedetto was here instead. It was a valiant effort from the talented Michael Pagliarini, who also runs Giulia down the block. But where Giulia was warm and convivial, Benedetto was muted, staid. And then the pandemic happened, and Benedetto was gone, too.
And now, Bar Enza. The restaurant has been much anticipated both because of the prime real estate and also because of the chef: Mark Ladner, who was for years one of Mario Batali’s biggest assets in New York City. Ladner ran Del Posto, where he earned four New York Times stars. He moved among the upper echelon of Manhattan’s mid-2000s culinary names. He was a Big Deal.
Harvard Square doesn’t have much in common with the Meatpacking District, and it might seem strange that Ladner is now cooking at a local hotel. He grew up in Belmont, though, and his parents are getting older — and, in his telling, Manhattan was just getting old.
“I did my time,” he told me.
Lucky for us. I had qualms about visiting when I couldn’t find a menu online, couldn’t easily make a reservation, and then was told that the menu was limited to a few apps while Ladner worked out the kinks. Really? This from the chef at Del Posto?
But when I stepped onto the patio last week (there’s also a big Art Deco dining room with curved rose banquettes that belong in “The Queen’s Gambit”), this was clearly a restaurant in full swing, populated by the same cast of characters you’d find on any given night at Rialto. It was as if everyone had crawled out of their brownstones after a season in purgatory.
You want to know about the food. It’s excellent. I haven’t had a meal this exciting in Boston for a very long time. Ciabatta sticks are “full of fun facts,” manager Tizzy Beck, who is also Ladner’s partner and comes to Cambridge by way of Italy and Staten Island, informed the table while making her (candid) recommendations.
Swipe the sticks ($12) in a lemon-tinged mascarpone and then order supplì — a meatless version of arancini — which aren’t your standard squooshy orbs. These are coated in puffy, crisp arborio rice and tinged with saffron ($10). A chicken parm panino special is the table’s favorite: an elevated version of a sub shop standard with a smear of chunky tomato jam on a fresh, seeded semolina roll and lots of basil ($15) with chicken that actually tastes like poultry, not overly breaded leather.
Square spaghetti with smoky mussels ($22) with dried tomatoes gets extra depth from white wine saffron; it’s cooked perfectly al dente, slightly chewy but not too much, in a portion easy to share. Angry lobster raviolo (market price) is one gigantic, delicate square of buttery lobster ravioli topped with spicy Calabrian pepper spread and garlic chives. Even the spice-shy in our group devoured it. Pork Milanese, thinly pounded and tender, has a side of tangy chopped salad straight out of 1950s Brooklyn, with a little mini pork chop on the side.
Entrees come with sides: Get the broccoli, which is oily and garlicky as advertised, and the rosemary tater tots, crisp and mealy.
The cocktail list is interesting: Bar Enza makes a very good margarita spiked with Calabrian chilis ($15) and prepares their Negroni with mezcal ($15). Our server, Beck, accidentally switches our Sauvignon Blanc for Chardonnay, but nobody really cares, especially after she brings us two more overfilled glasses for free. She later tells us that the mistake was on purpose. She was trying to distract us from mayhem in the dining room: Apparently EMTs had rushed in to attend to a diner in distress. (Nothing too serious, she says.) The service is a little quirky and slow for a swanky restaurant, but after a year or more in relative isolation, you might not care. And that Parm helps.
Harvard Square has changed in recent years. There are more chains and empty storefronts, fewer independent businesses. It’s not as edgy, eccentric, or fun — you’d have to go a few more blocks to Central Square for that. But maybe not any more.
Bar Enza, The Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050, www.bar-enza.com