I have a soft spot for the Blue Room. Long ago, I splurged here on one of the first “fancy’’ meals I ever financed with my own paycheck. The bill was $50, including wine and tip, and I quietly panicked at spending that much on one dinner. But I still remember how good the duck was.
Now the Kendall Square restaurant has been open more than 20 years, with chefs such as Chris Schlesinger, Stan Frankenthaler, Steve Johnson (who cooked that memorable duck), and Tony Maws passing through the kitchen. In November, when longtimer Jorge Lopes departed, owners Nick Zappia and Liz Vilardi brought in Robert Grant, who was formerly chef at the Butcher Shop and learned his craft at Thomas Keller’s Vegas Bouchon and on the farms of Europe.
The Blue Room has a personality of its own. Even when the food changes, the restaurant feels the same: like itself. Downstairs in one of the brick buildings of the windy One Kendall Square complex, it is minimally lighted, with exposed beams and works by local artists on the walls. Cambridge mingles, men with ponytails and women with crew cuts, professors and moviegoers, and a strong contingent of gray-haired diners fighting valiantly to read the menu in the half-light; on Sundays, the brunch crowd comes in force for the well-known buffet.
The twin hearts of the restaurant are the wood-burning grill at one end and the curving bar at the other. The bar remains one of the most pleasant places to dine solo in the Boston area, with genial staff who make just enough conversation - in particular Reggie St. Paul, the bearded barman who has been making sidecars and rose martinis here from the get-go. The grill informs the menu, producing the likes of pizza (topped with scamorza, pesto, and smoked tomato, the flavors oddly sweet, almost honeyed), octopus (blackened tendrils twined with tender lettuce and fingerling potatoes, dressed in dill and mint vinaigrette), and lamb leg (overshadowed by the accompanying navy beans, flavored with nutty brown butter). Grant is aging steaks for the grill, too. Grass-fed beef comes from Rain Crow Ranch; seafood from Wild Rhody, Pat Woodbury, and Island Creek; in-season vegetables from Verrill Farm. The Blue Room was strong on local, seasonal, sustainably produced food before most people thought about such things.
Each meal still begins with Iggy’s bread. At the end of the night, leftover loaves are doled out to lingering guests. And each meal can still include “one perfect cheese.’’ Zappia and Vilardi are particularly well equipped to provide it since opening Central Bottle Wine + Provisions with friends in 2009. The wine list draws from the shop, too. Each dish on the menu is annotated with a letter, A-M, corresponding with a by-the-glass pairing. Vilardi and managers Lindsay Pyrch and Robyn Luongo serve as guides enthusiastic to share their terrain, offering tastes and steering guests to unusual bottles. One evening, it’s Olivier Lemasson’s “Poivre et Sel,’’ a wine that showcases the grape pineau d’aunis and actually does have notes of pepper and salt, Vilardi explains: “I’m kind of in love with this winemaker.’’
There are things to love on the menu, too. For snacking at the bar, it’s hard to beat chickpea panisse, springy little cakes that taste like a fresher version of falafel, embellished with tzatziki made with creamy yogurt from Sophia’s Greek Pantry in Belmont and slivers of pickled onion. Classic duck leg confit rests on a bed of homey lentils, with cubes of pickled beets lending color and tang. A tall slab of braised pork shoulder, mahogany brown and meltingly tender, sits stately on mustard greens, crowned with a creamy tangle of vegetal celeriac remoulade.
Crisp-topped pan-roasted fish gives way to a moist interior: Cod is served with salsify two ways (how often do you see this root vegetable prepared even one?), roasted and pureed, the dish brightened by vinaigrette that’s rounded out with piment d’espelette. Arctic char nestles on a bed of sunchokes with black kale, surrounded by a pool of tart, sunny beurre blanc.
Dishes can be prone to uneven seasoning. Salt levels rocket up and down like a roller coaster (mostly up). The warm spices in house-made cotechino are too dominant for the rich sausage, which is matched with funky Taleggio, polenta, and a spill of tiny diced vegetables. A vegetarian pasta dish is well conceived: rigatoni with cannellini, black kale, and fennel in a savory Parmesan broth, gremolata bringing the lilt of citrus. But the pasta is overcooked, the beans undercooked, the whole thing too salty and overwhelmed by a shower of dry crumbs on top. A salad of farro and bulgur with marcona almonds is gummy, the flavors dull.
Desserts from pastry chef Mia Velasquez range from the simplicity of sorbet (one scoop of cranberry, one of Meyer lemon, plus honey-thyme shortbread) to a tart topped with caramelized bananas, the sweetness leavened by a good dose of salt. Almond semifreddo works wonderfully with sweet-tart pickled cherries; the accompanying chestnut cake is dry as sawdust, however. A cup of wonderful spiced hot cocoa with homemade marshmallows brings two kinds of warmth, the chili lingering after the steaming drink is gone.
If the food is still being refined, the Blue Room itself remains remarkably consistent - no small feat after two decades. It is well run, focused on hospitality, humanely priced, and ever congenial. A night here is always pleasant. Were the dining landscape consumed entirely by voguish spots offering small plates, loud music, and casual, shareable fun, this would be exactly the kind of restaurant we would dearly miss.