It’s rare, in a small city, to find a well-kept secret — never mind one sitting right in plain sight.
But here is Urban Hearth, a restaurant with a cozy, unassuming name located in a cozy, unassuming North Cambridge storefront. It’s like a geode. Crack it open and discover something totally lovely. A gem. A surprise.
Of course, the place is known to many, particularly in and around the neighborhood. Chef-owner Erin Miller opened her farm-to-table restaurant six years ago.
But until the pandemic, it flew a little bit under the radar. Urban Hearth served multi-course prix fixe menus, the kind of meal that feels more special treat than regular occurrence. The introduction of a patio, in July 2020, brought it new visibility and double the seats — 24 inside, 26 outside. And the move to an a la carte format made it more accessible, although a tasting menu is still available at the four-seat chef’s counter. “Magically, we started seeing people in the community we’d never seen before,” Miller says. “We built a strong following over the past six years. People loved us, but they came for their birthday. Now we see people who aren’t necessarily going to drop $200 on a meal but would like a place to come have a nice drink. It’s been so unbelievably satisfying, really fulfilling, to start seeing people on a regular basis. We are building a stronger fabric.”
Miller is a second-career chef. After working at community-development nonprofits in Baltimore and D.C., she went on to attend cooking school at the former French Culinary Institute, then worked for a time in New York fine dining. When she had her first of two sons in 2005, she transitioned to what she calls a “mishmash” of private dining, events, and teaching. She and her husband, who works in IT, moved to Cambridge, and eventually she began looking for kitchen space.
“I went into owning a restaurant without a lot of experience. I don’t know what I cannot do,” she says. “Along with that has been a lot of mistakes and a lot of wrong turns, but I’ve come out stronger in the end for it, and the restaurant I have today is something I can be really proud of.”
What she unquestionably can do is cook — beautiful, delicious, seasonal, thoughtful food. The menu features ingredients from Red Fire Farm, Kimball Fruit Farm, Island Creek Oysters, Red’s Best, Ben Maleson (a.k.a. the Mushroom Man), and more outfits close to home. It lists them all. It changes often, of course. It’s divided into categories of provenance: land, sea, garden. It’s a tight wee compendium of compelling choices, with three options per category. Each one elicits a wolf whistle when it hits the table, followed by an “oh, wow” with the first bite.
On a recent night, friends and I share scallop crudo in aguachile verde, the chilly slices of scallop floating on an aqua plate, festooned with translucent slices of radish, snipped herbs and flowers, and a sprinkle of the Japanese seasoning furikake made with smoky lapsang tea. We move on to lamb tartare topped with morels and mustard seeds, beside folded yellow triangles of eggy crepes flecked with herbs. Then there’s a big, bright plate of grilled Little Gem lettuce with pork belly, beets, hot-pink beet labneh, and pickled rhubarb. And pan-roasted picanha, the flavorful cut of beef popular in Brazil, topped with charred lemon slices, served with chimichurri made from lovage and a marrow bone. For dessert: roasted rhubarb and almond financier with Earl Grey ice cream, with a little pitcher of warm maple-bourbon syrup for us to pour into the dish.
We sip cocktails — the Wild Wild Life, house-infused pea vodka with mint, lime, and agave is a favorite — and Lambrusco like ladies as the Mass. Ave. buses huff past.
That dinner wasn’t long ago, but its delights have since been supplanted: by a salad of carrots spiced with French curry blend vadouvan, by roast striped bass wrapped in slices of summer squash in lemon balm dashi, by crispy duck wings with figs, salt-roasted beets, purple kraut, and harissa.
One constant is the biscuit. The Biscuit. It towers above them all, literally and figuratively. And it comes with smoked maple miso butter. It is grand. It’s not a traditional biscuit, says Miller, who has roots in the South. It’s made more like a croissant. Still, her granny would be proud.
It’s not just the food that distinguishes Urban Hearth. It’s the intimacy, the openness, the sense that this tiny crew of people — Miller plus service manager Ali Garvin, with Tong Lee and Gabriel Peterson in the kitchen — is creating something special for you. Everybody is just really, really nice.
“We want people to slow down and engage the dining experience in a more fundamental and thoughtful way,” Miller says. “Some people get it and some people don’t. It’s not a restaurant for the masses. We’re not going to change the world. We’re not going to change dining in Boston. But we might change the hearts and minds of the community of people who dine with us regularly. I think that’s profound.”
2263 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-682-7295, www.urbanhearth.net
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.