At Ribelle in Brookline, the chefs are working hard and fast in the open kitchen. They blast kale over high heat until it begins to burn; they festoon arrangements of raw lamb with sunflower sprouts, a carnivore’s fever dream of a salad. Perched on their heads: the kind of hat favored by short-order cooks, paper with red stripes. One man, chef-owner Tim Maslow, inspects a dish made by another. He frowns, then asks: “Are you going to make this right? Or am I going to have to 86 it?” The other guy looks shaken, but his answer is clear from the expression on his face. He is going to make it right.
The scene sums up Ribelle. The hats are a joke, the anti-toque. They say: We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We are making food here, just like they do in any greasy spoon. The cooking, though, is for real, intensely creative yet carefully calibrated. It says: We take this very seriously indeed.
Ribelle is the first from-scratch outing for Maslow, who worked his way through the ranks of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, eventually becoming chef de cuisine of Momofuku Ssam Bar. Then he left, to help reinvigorate his father’s Watertown sandwich shop, a somewhat unlikely career move. But Maslow has since turned that restaurant, Strip-T’s, into a dining destination. Ribelle, on a corner formerly occupied by an Indian bistro, is marked by a sign in red neon script; inside, the restaurant is dark and loud, anchored by a long communal table. Lights shaped like ice cubes from outer space dangle above the bar, where shelves are stocked with books from the likes of Noma and PDT. The mood is casual and cool, the service friendly and relaxed. But don’t be fooled. The hospitality is serious too.
Maslow has put together a team with impressive credentials. Beverage director and general manager Theresa Paopao has worked at Oleana and the Momofuku restaurants. Sous chefs Payson Cushman and Craig Hutchinson spent time at Quince in San Francisco and Ssam Bar, and Harvest and Radius, respectively. Pastry chef Jake Novick-Finder comes from Chanterelle, Gramercy Tavern, and Otto in New York. Now they are free to do their own thing on their own terms. Ribelle — pronounced rih-BELL-ay — means rebel in Italian. The name fits.
So yes, there are meatballs here. But they are categorized on the menu under “vegetables.” They arc along the lip of a plate, interspersed with wedges of pink-skinned turnip and soft dollops of parsnip cheese — a ricotta-esque substance made from parsnip-infused milk, sweet and vegetal. There is Bolognese sauce too, a pared-back version without any nutmeg frippery, just deep, almost jammy meat sauce folded into wide, chewy pappardelle. The dish is accented with ingredients from opposite poles of the food spectrum: dark green frills of kale and pork rinds, airy and crisp.
In another dish, kale takes a starring role. “Kale salad is totally over,” one diner scoffs, until she tastes the greens at Ribelle. They are served with oyster crema, padron peppers, and quinoa, ingredients that may never have come together in the same dish before. But anyone can throw together the unlikely and call himself clever. What makes this work so well is the flavor from the burned leaves, dark and interesting without veering into carcinogenic. There are crisp, brittle bites and supple, chewy ones; the dish doesn’t get boring.
Lamb tartare showcases raw meat, tender and mild. Egg, sunflower seeds and sprouts, crisped pieces of mint, and thin-sliced radishes bring interesting tastes and textures to the composition. But it is the flavor of sunchoke — earthy, nutty, singular — that pulls everything together. This might just win the award for dish of the year.
Green beans are served with grilled veal tongue, garlic confit, and squid-ink crumbs. It isn’t until you taste it that you realize what it is: a sneaky reimagining of yum nua, the spicy Thai beef salad, laced with chilies and herbs, all spice and crunch. Truffle egg toast is another reimagining, a fancy yet still comforting riff on a childhood breakfast, egg in a basket. Everywhere on the menu there are bursts of umami: mushrooms, anchovy, Parmesan.
And for dessert there is olive oil ice cream, salty and luxurious, with a chocolate topping that hardens on the frozen scoops: Magic Shell for adults.
The food is startling, inventive, and smart. But this kind of cooking only works when backed by real skill, showcased in the simplest dishes — say, chicken with greens and potatoes. Each bite is juicy and tender, tasting like super-chicken, as if the flavor of several birds has been compacted into one. Imagination is nothing without the proper amount of salt and acid. And that is what really makes the food at Ribelle wonderful and satisfying. Each plate is perfectly seasoned. In almost every meal, at every restaurant, there comes a moment when one thinks: There is too much salt in this, or not enough. Not here. The salt supports the food, humming along in the background. Acid, too, is used with nimble balance. During corn season, a grilled ear was served with husk pulled back to reveal a spill of polenta. The dish was flavored with Parmesan and bold amounts of lime — so much of the juicy, bright flavor it was almost too much, except that it wasn’t. It was perfect.
How to pair drink with such food? Create a wine list like no other in town. Ribelle’s is filled with offerings from small producers featuring more-unusual grapes such as Pedro Ximenez and Poulsard. But what really distinguishes it is Paopao’s by-the-glass program. Rather than list varietals, producers, regions, or indeed any of the markers commonly referred to when ordering wine, she offers a sparkler, a rosé, three whites, and three reds, each described by a flavor profile. So White 1 might be “light + vibrant, racy acidity, all mineral all day long; CRUSHER,” and Red 2 “Savory nose, medium bodied, and concentrated dark fruit flavors; it wants to be rustic, but it’s not.” The wines and profiles change all the time. The approach is both illuminating and whimsical, in keeping with the restaurant’s spirit. And servers are happy to offer tastes and fill you in on the specifics of each offering when you ask.
In addition to wine, Ribelle offers well-made cocktails: The From the Hip, mezcal, Campari, falernum, and mint over crushed ice, is like an intoxicating snow cone; a Vieux Carre is perfectly balanced. There is a short beer list with selections from small brewers around the country.
So what’s not right at Ribelle? Well, it’s too loud and too hot; linger over the lamb tartare and it gets warm. Red wine, too, is served above temperature. And not every dish is a slam-dunk. A cardamom-scented coffee cake is too heavy. Agnolotti with veal, salsify, and tomato jam is dull and overly sweet. The latter is already off the menu, replaced by agnolotti with short rib and bone marrow. With constant reinvention, missteps quickly disappear.
Communal tables encourage conversation, and one refrain from those who live in the neighborhood is that the prices are high for the portion sizes. This barely dampens the enthusiasm of a trio of charming women one evening. Unbidden, they weigh in: “We give it three stars.”
I think it’s better.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.