In 1996, the Franklin Cafe opened in the South End. It served comfortable, creative food, and it was soon beloved. It spread, to Gloucester and South Boston. And it begat. Almost 20 years later, the children of the Franklin are arriving in areas in need of similar haunts, as chefs move on and open their own places.
With Moody Street restaurant Red Bird, Franklin alum chef Daniel Stokes does for Waltham what the Franklin did for the South End years ago. With its Indian markets, taquerias, killer deli, and more, Waltham is a vibrant food destination. Now it has a fine little New American bistro in the mix.
Red Bird occupies a compact space, with a few booths along one wall, a few tables adjacent, and a bar area on the other side of the room. This used to be the Tuscan Grill, an Old World nook featuring murals of the Italian countryside. Today the walls are lined with white and glossy black brick, the floors are a handsome dark wood, and the lighting is modern and streamlined. So long, Siena.
At the back of the room, beneath a sculpture of a cardinal perching on a silver branch, is a small kitchen closed in with glass panes, a window into just what a wild endeavor it is to run a restaurant. Inside, chefs move like human pistons. From the nearby restroom, one can hear the terse patter of the expediter, attempting to get dinners to tables. The hard work of cooking easy, tasty food for a crowd is on display. When it takes a long time for dishes to arrive, one feels sympathy as well as hunger.
And it is worth the wait.
Mussels come in tomato broth with bacon and roasted fennel, so deliciously smoky and balanced we keep going back for more. "Those Franklin boys sure know how to fry," a companion says when clam strips arrive. They are crisp and golden, strewn with fried herbs and lemon slices, with coriander-spiked aioli on the side. Pillowy gnocchi come with braised veal cheek, mushrooms, and Madeira jus, an autumnal appetizer that is hearty without being heavy.
Every other person here seems to be dipping a spoon into French onion soup, with plenty of caramelized onions and Gruyere; the beef broth has deep, rich flavor, but there isn't nearly enough of it. This is more like French onion stew. A carnitas tamale is the anomaly on the menu, the polenta-esque masa fragrant and comforting against tender bites of pork, with cheddar, grilled lime, and a complex but slightly bitter mole sauce.
Red Bird does an uncommonly good job with hanger steak, grilling the chewy, flavorful cut perfectly to order. Bone marrow butter is one of those add-ons that compels diners to order steak but doesn't always enhance it; here, it really enriches the meat and underlines the sheer tastiness of the dish. The steak is served with caramelized Brussels sprouts (not noticeably caramelized, but good) and excellent "torn & fried" potatoes: rough hunks crisp on the outside and tender inside.
Lumache, snail shell-shaped pasta, come al dente in spicy tomato sauce with bites of chorizo and rock shrimp — delicious flavors, perfectly cooked components. This is one of those deceptively simple dishes that can go horribly wrong, and here it just keeps going right, bite after bite.
Pork loin schnitzel is topped with addictively chewy spatzle and bacon-braised cabbage. It's all savory, all the time; a squeeze of lemon would brighten the dish and boost it from good to great.
Duck confit comes with root vegetable hash, but the addition of hollandaise does the dish no favors; it makes the crisp skin soggy. And catfish — served with grits, greens, bacon, Cajun-spiced compound butter, and lime — sounds like a slam dunk, but the flavors and ingredients blend together on the plate. It's a bit of a muddy mess.
Such missteps are rare, however. This is good, solid cooking. One never laments the absence or presence of salt; the seasoning is always just right.
There is no burger here, and there is no molten chocolate cake or other easy dessert equivalent. Even a warm apple buckle is accented by miso ice cream. Chocolate-caramel ganache comes with chocolate ice cream and passion-fruit cream, artfully plated. A light, creamy round of mascarpone cheesecake is very good on its own, but pistachio-olive oil sorbet and fig compote make things more interesting.
Bartenders serve a fine Old Fashioned, if house cocktails can be hit or miss. (The In Cahoots, a pleasing riff on the Last Word, contains undetectable rhubarb cordial; the Sherlock & Watson, made with spiced whiskey, Earl Grey tea, lemon, and cardamom bitters, is far too sweet.) Many draught offerings are local, from Notch Session Pils to Jack's Abby Smoke & Dagger, and there are plenty of season-appropriate selections such as Goose Island Oktoberfest and Shipyard Pumpkinhead. The wine list isn't particularly imaginative, but it is reasonably priced, with many glasses for $8 or $9.
In the middle of the week, every seat at Red Bird is full. Why not? The food is good. The atmosphere is friendly. The pacing needs work, but this place has all the makings of a new neighborhood favorite. That Franklin formula keeps winning fans.
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