Spend a night at the bar at Cook, a new restaurant in Newton, and you may wind up knowing more about the bartender and the people sitting next to you than you do about your own neighbors. Unless, of course, the people sitting next to you are your neighbors, which is very likely. Many conversations here begin with some version of “We live just down the block” or “This is the closest place to our house.” Cook opened in September, a project from chef Paul Turano, who is also behind Tryst in Arlington, a neighborhood staple. Cook is quickly becoming one too.
The restaurant has been busy from the get-go; show up on a Friday night without reservations and be ready for a long wait. No matter where you stand, you are in the way of a server trying to get a full tray to a table in the dining area, a high-top, or a second bar facing the pizza oven.
The focus on flatbread is the main thing that differentiates Cook’s menu from Tryst’s. (Cook, mercifully, forgoes Tryst’s cringeworthy themed headers, opting for the likes of “starters,” “salad,” and “sandwich” instead of “just a fling,” “getting fresh,” and “not fully committed.”) The two share many dishes: a fine little taco, for instance, the tortilla smeared with avocado, piled high with fried shrimp, and drizzled in aji crema. It’s $5. There are five beers on tap, from a Jack’s Abby seasonal offering to Palm amber ale, plus more than 20 additional brews in bottles and cans. And there are flat-screen TVs over the bar. Sports fans, draw your own conclusions.
Cook’s menu does a neat little jig between casual, fun dishes (house-made pretzels, a burger) and more-refined bistro fare (kale salad, a nicely cooked piece of salmon with mustard glaze, spinach, roasted apple, and quinoa). There are crowd pleasers and creative touches. With its modern, comfortable decor — gray-painted brick and chalkboard walls, wood floors, exposed ductwork, metal chandeliers and dangling bulbs — Cook can serve for date night, a place to grab a drink with a friend, or a birthday gathering.
Whatever the occasion, get the kale salad. The leafy green has followed the path blazed by Brussels sprouts — formerly scorned vegetables now finding redemption. Local menus have broken out in a rash of kale salads, but the one at Cook stands out. Perhaps because it contains Brussels sprouts! The vegetables are shaved into thin ribbons, tossed with hazelnuts, shreds of Parmesan cheese, and verjus, pressed from unripened grapes. The result is a wonderfully balanced salad, tart and rich and addictive to the last bite.
Another salad brings together beets, burrata, fig, and shallot vinaigrette — completely different flavors but the same tart-rich balance, luxurious without being over the top.
And a salad of Asian noodles with peanuts, ponzu, and a side of tender pork ribs offers a different, welcome flavor profile (even if it’s really a salad in name only). Another appetizer, fried clams served cute, spilling from a brown paper bag, is more satisfying to look at than to eat; the clams are heavy and chewy, nothing special.
Cook’s burger is a perfectly fine offering, a fat patty with cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and onions. But the fries on the side are uneven nubbins, the sort of cutting job you’d think someone might get scolded for. Instead, the mangled potato bits are fried and served. It’s too bad, but for a meaty sandwich you’re better off with a lamb kofte pita anyway. The bread is folded around nicely spiced lamb with plenty of crunchy greens and cucumbers, with creamy yogurt for contrast. (There’s a vegetarian version available, with walnut-lentil kofte and mushrooms; the menu has plenty for those who don’t eat meat or gluten — even a gluten-free ice cream sandwich for dessert.)
The pasta in the Bolognese is overcooked, but the sauce is a flavor bomb of meaty umami. And the NFC — Newton Fried Chicken, of course — is a winner of a chicken dinner, two pieces of crisp and juicy meat with mashed potatoes, slaw, gravy, and a biscuit.
As for those flatbreads, they have great toppings: a mix of mushrooms with fontina, ricotta, and caramelized onions, or thin slices of tuna seared at the edges sashimi-style over arugula with spicy aioli. The crust underneath has less character, perfectly plausible dough but without much in the way of chew or char.
For dessert we wish for more of the butterscotch pudding component in our banana tart, but an apple tart with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream is sweet and homey.
Service varies depending on where you sit. In the dining area, there is much hovering and awkwardness. No sooner does a plate touch down than our server is asking how we are enjoying the dish; we feel rushed at the end of the meal.
Things couldn’t be more different at the bar, the best reason to visit Cook. The staffers here are pros, and they make everyone feel at home, doling out strong, well-made cocktails and equally fortifying doses of bonhomie. A Sazerac is slightly sweeter than usual but excellent, the Elder Fashion (St. Germain, bourbon, orange bitters, and sweet vermouth) balanced.
Cook isn’t a destination restaurant, and it’s not made to be. Like its Arlington cousin, it is the kind of local place one is always glad to have nearby, offering quality, creativity, and comfort. Oh, and brunch. When it comes to creating the essential neighborhood spot, Turano has it down.
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