Food writers love to throw around the term “chef-driven” when describing restaurants. It helps us differentiate from all those other restaurants driven by comedians, endocrinologists, and forest rangers — or worse yet, those without any designated driver at all, careening all over the road.
If the phrase is both vague and pretentious, it is also useful shorthand. It suggests food that is a window into the chef’s mind and/or soul, ingredients that are seasonal, high-quality, and grown at local farms with evocative names, a restaurant that is small with eclectic decor, and a chef who is deeply engaged, probably perfectionist, possibly obsessive, pondering 24/7 what unlikely flavors and techniques to combine in the hopes of achieving alchemy.
In the cold winter that bridged 2012 and 2013, two restaurants opened that invited the term. One is named for the dog from “The Thin Man,” in part because calling their restaurant Asta allowed owners Alex Crabb, the chef, and Shish Parsigian to amend the existing sign, which previously read “pizza and pasta.” The other, Puritan & Company, is named after Puritan Cake Co., a bakery that occupied the Cambridge space for decades. Both names reflect something about the restaurants — with the first, a sense of good humor and a “let’s go for it” DIY spirit; with the second, New England backbone and a sense of history leavened with other ingredients. And both merit a revisit: How are these small and, yes, chef-driven places doing nearly two years in, when the opening buzz has faded into the hum of daily routine?
Crabb worked for years at L’Espalier and also interned at Copenhagen’s Noma, and both influences are felt at Asta. In the Globe’s 2013 restaurant awards, I named him chef of the year and called the restaurant one of the city’s best chef showcases. I haven’t changed my mind. Asta takes a big risk: Located on the edge of Back Bay, it offers only tasting menus, with three-course, five-course, and eight-course options. (Menus change constantly, which is why the dishes mentioned don’t match those pictured.) And it achieves something rare, serving memorable, satisfying tastes dish after dish.
This is how a recent eight-course dinner looked:
A pour of gorgeous bubbly to ease guests in, first thing, after coats are shrugged off and seats taken and greetings exchanged. We feel welcome and festive. Whole-meal bread with good crust and a rich whip of butter. An amuse-bouche that somehow combines shishito peppers, peanuts, and chorizo to make something that tastes great. And then on to the main event.
The first course is described on the menu in one word: melon. It is a salad of late-season tomatoes and cantaloupe, simple but beautiful, yellow and green and orange, and spiked with surprises. That one’s a tomatillo, puckery and bright. And woven in are buttery mushrooms that contrast with the fresh, raw ingredients.
Then comes plum with beef jus: What? The fruit is roasted and jammy, the jus meaty and concentrated. It offers the depth of flavor you might usually find in the final savory course of a big tasting menu, but with all the lightness of an early entry.
Then: dense, meaty chicken mushrooms served on a rock, along with “dirt” made from mushrooms that have been grated, reduced, and fried, plus crunchy bits with the texture of mushroom-flavored pork rinds. A slice of the most perfectly rosy duck breast, skin crisp as a potato chip, just fatty enough and salty enough, offset by a salad of citrus-spiked fennel and carrots. Velvety sweet-and-sour eggplant with peanuts and hyssop: Chinese food, meet candy. A flute of crimson strawberry-rose ice, somewhere in texture between granita and sorbet, tastes like floral Jell-O, in a good way. There is fig leaf panna cotta with tomato that’s been roasted into sweetness, and a bonus plate of cookies and spicy caramel corn.
One dish — halibut with corn salad, with too much onion and a swamp-green parsley jus — is nice enough but not the equal of the others. But we are sad to see almost every course conclude: We want more plum and beef jus, more mushrooms on a rock, more of that beautiful duck. “It’s like when you finish a great book,” a friend says, both satisfied and reluctant to reach the end.
The Cure and New Order are playing. We sit at tables with gliding drawers filled with mismatched silver: Choose your own utensils. There are brick walls, wood chairs draped with sheepskins, long benches padded with bright ikat fabric, and a horseshoe bar that offers an unobstructed view of the open kitchen. Asta has a wonderful wine program, and we sip chenin blanc and Sicilian rosé, recommendations from our funny, friendly server. Crabb brings a plate over, taking a break from the kitchen; we spot him a few minutes later, leaping into the air. When we leave, Parsigian runs out after us to offer a cheery farewell. Asta delivers serious food with a lightness of spirit.
Less than 2 miles away, across the river in Cambridge, is Puritan & Company, where chef-owner Will Gilson (Herb Lyceum, Garden at the Cellar) takes tried-and-true local ingredients in unexpected directions. Swordfish is on half the menus in town, but who else makes it into pastrami, then serves it with pumpernickel puree, dots of mustard, and pickled turnips? (It’s good at dinner, but it would be irresistible on a bagel.) Good old cauliflower is turned into flan, which coats the surface of the bowl and is served with the best version of a ladies-who-lunch crab salad, balanced by refreshing green apple and salty guanciale. That New England standby, the farm egg, here is barely warmed through and served with the thinnest slices of mushroom, along with a pleasantly hefty dose of garlic, pretty emerald arugula puree, and smoked brioche that stands in for the bacon a different chef might add reflexively.
Another bacon alternative is lamb belly, glazed in Moxie for a wonderful sweetness. It’s served alongside a tiny eggplant, the dish infused with the lilt of orange and enriched with pistachios. Lamb T-bones are daringly rare, the little chops nestled together with farro, spinach, and cipollini onions. And chewy ricotta cavatelli is matched with celery root and pearl onions.
This is a menu that treats vegetables with the respect they deserve — the highlight of a seared cod dish, for instance, is the accompanying shredded Brussels sprouts, pine nuts, and cauliflower. A potential downside at this time of year is too much onion in too many dishes. The assorted purees that dot and swirl the plates can be bland and underseasoned. And desserts that sound grand — like a coconut cake with raspberry, rose, and lime curd — don’t always taste that way. Sometimes Puritan & Company’s experimental approach works better in the imagination than it does on the plate.
Whatever’s in the glass seems to be working just fine, however. A Lyceum spritz, made with bubbles, Chartreuse, and lemon, is herbal and refreshing, while the Creole cocktail, with rye, vermouth, and Benedictine, packs a very smooth wallop. And the wine list beckons with bottles from Long Island, the Basque Country, and all over France; local beers are abundant too.
The restaurant, painted in neutrals and blues, has an urban-rustic feeling to it, with reclaimed wood panels above upholstered banquettes, communal seating and a spacious bar, and an old-fashioned stove topped with pottery and plants that serves as a host stand. Service is pleasant but not seamless; there are awkward moments and niceties overlooked. (When sitting by oneself, waiting for late guests and sipping a potent cocktail, it would be nice to have one of Puritan’s excellent Parker House-style rolls to nibble.)
The devil is still in the details, but it is always interesting to watch a chef at the wheel.
ASTA 47 Massachusetts Ave., Back Bay, Boston, 617-585-9575, www.astaboston.com.
PURITAN & COMPANY 1166 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-615-6195, www.puritancambridge.com.