On this stretch of Broadway, lined with tool stores, mini-marts, and restaurants serving pupusas and tacos, you might not guess you were in the same Somerville that’s been anointed a hipster capital of the universe. It isn’t the likeliest place for a pair of pedigreed chefs to put their new restaurant. Former Sel de la Terre and L’Espalier chef Daniel Bojorquez, along with partner and L’Espalier chef-owner Frank McClelland, opened La Brasa here at the end of April.
But it is plain to see the street is changing: It is lined with the neon-orange emblems of construction, part of a project to widen sidewalks and transform this into a more-welcoming area to shop, eat, and stroll. There goes the neighborhood? Rents are on the rise in Somerville, a city marching ever forward. But La Brasa is a promising sign of what the future might bring.
It feels right, the way places like Highland Kitchen and Sarma did when they debuted, bringing ease and a high level of cookery to corners of the city hungry for these things. The food at La Brasa is different from anything else nearby, or in the Boston area, really — a mixture of flavors foraged from the corners of the known world, thrown together over a wood fire. (Thus the name; “a la brasa” means “grilled” in Spanish.) But the restaurant is so relaxed and welcoming, it fits right in while standing out.
The interior feels like a warehouse designed by hobbits, or maybe a barn designed by pirates, raw and cozy at once. The walls are covered in wood boards and distressed white brick; grand windows let in the light above a wall-length banquette and tables made from rough planks; patrons ease into leather-covered tractor-seat stools at the long stretch of bar. It all leads, inexorably, to the shiny steel corner of the room where chefs cook over live flames. Many staff members are recognizable from other high-profile restaurants. Something here — friendship, talent, pyromania — exerts a magnetic pull.
Bojorquez presides over it all. The chef, a winner on the TV show “Chopped” a few years back, grew up in Mexico, and this influence is clear in several dishes. Carnitas tacos — succulent slow-roasted pork shoulder with salsa verde folded into soft corn tortillas — are the most straightforward example. They rival those found at neighborhood taquerias. But there are also roasted carrots with mole, the sweet and tender roots a lovely foil for the complex flavors of the sauce. Fried rice embraces Mexico, China, and New England spring, the garlicky grains interspersed with fava beans, sliced radishes, scallions, and cilantro. It is impossible to stop eating.
Pescado zarandeado is an arresting presentation, a grilled black bass brick red from guajillo chile. But the skin is soggy by the time it reaches the table, and the rub has a bitter aftertaste. Lamb shank pozole, too, misses its mark with bland red chile broth.
But La Brasa’s menu is just as likely to touch down in the American South, Korea, Catalonia, or Peru. One of the tastiest dishes is Swiss chard pie with colorado chile, Spanish ham, Basque piperade, and an egg, an inhalable mixture of flavors. Where are we now? Who cares? Just eat.
Move on to watercress salad with excellently tart sriracha vinaigrette and “noodles” made from egg. Tiradito, the Peruvian version of sashimi, is refreshing and beautiful, thin slices of raw fish and crisp shaved fennel stained saffron with aji amarillo vinaigrette. A roasted half-lobster is gorgeously simple, sweet meat drizzled with herb butter. Peel-’n’-eat shrimp, a special one evening, are flavored with harissa, enhancing the pleasure of this hands-on dish.
La Brasa’s fried chicken has crisp skin and flavorful meat, to be sure. But what makes it so savory and irresistible is the addition of parsley, horseradish, and escargot-brown butter vinaigrette. It’s a delicious reminder that there is a chef trained in French cuisine behind this freewheeling menu.
At L’Espalier, rib eye for two is carved tableside with great pomp and circumstance. La Brasa’s version of this is a rolling cart bearing glass jars filled with coarse salt and vivid green chimichurri sauce beside a beautiful browned rib roast. Juicy, rare slices are cut to order, by the ounce. It’s casual, but it tastes perfectly grand.
Not every dish is a showstopper. “Burnt” beets arrive without a scorch mark. A Korean squid pancake fails to make an impression amid bolder dishes. Brisket with green tomatillo sauce is a quietly tasty take on barbecue, but it could be stunning with just a bit more acid, salt, and spice.
And there is a downside to these small-plates menus that jump from flavor to flavor. They sacrifice coherence. I like downloading music favorite song by favorite song. But I still appreciate the art of the album, the build from track to track, the way separate pieces come together as a whole. Increasingly, this is not the mode in which we consume, art or food. Sampling widely is its own reward. But something, too, is lost along the way.
La Brasa, however, is Broadway’s gain. It offers simple, tasty desserts: butterscotch pudding laced with Rice Krispies, an affogato made with excellent espresso. (La Brasa uses beans from Berlin-based Gracenote Coffee.) The drinks are as eclectic as the food: Notch Session Pils is the lone draft beer offering, but there are several cocktails on tap. Then, a half-dozen smoked beers are available by the bottle (along with other selections), furthering the theme of the restaurant and giving patrons a chance to explore the style. The food-friendly wine list entices with unusual offerings and a range of prices (the selection of bottles in the $30s isn’t a surprise at this neighborhood spot, but the $98 bottles are unexpected). And the cocktail list seems almost deliberately whimsical. Some inventions are wonderful, like the Speaking in Tongues, a balanced little potion of strawberry-infused Crema de Mezcal, Amaro Abano, citrus, and bitters. Others don’t work as well. Horchata for two, for instance, is a boozy take on the creamy, nut-based drink, a fine idea. But it has an odd fruity note that eclipses its merits.
La Brasa also has an adjoining market, selling cheese, produce, coffee, and more. There is live music at brunch and on other occasions. And there is valet service. On Broadway. Yes, things are changing, but gently. It only costs $6.
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