The new Royal restaurant in Watertown calls itself “A Local Eatery” and there are plans to open from breakfast through dinner. For the moment, there’s lunch and dinner only in a storefront that formerly housed Acapulco Mexican Restaurant. The new space has a lounge-y feel: dark burgundy walls, black tablecloths, mustard napkins, hanging copper pendants, oversized white plates and bowls, large slate slabs used for serving, and chunky square water glasses.
There’s some fine cooking here and some that isn’t as gutsy as you might expect.
Restaurateur and chef Rachid Kourda was born in Tunis, Tunisia, and grew up in Lyon, France. Those two cities should say a lot about someone’s cuisine. North Africa is known for its spices and the food of Lyon is heavy on meat, fat, and organs.
But Kourda, who spent 3½ years at the Red Lion Inn in Cohasset, a popular wedding spot, isn’t reaching for many chiles or blood sausages in his Watertown spot. Instead, his cooking is restrained. The one place where he flexes his culinary muscle is lamb kefta ($19), patties that are crusty on the outside, very tender inside, accompanied by spicy garlic harissa. It was the lamb of the day recently. The meat is sitting on an especially smooth puree of potatoes, and served with roasted cherry tomatoes, sauteed baby bok choy, and chunks of parsnip.
Many plates come with an array of vegetables that may include carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. We see them again with a nice little steak ($19) called “petit tender,” a cut that resembles beef tenderloin, but that comes from the shoulder of the animal and also goes by the names “teres major steak” (because it’s cut from the teres major muscle), “shoulder tender,” or “bistro filet.” The meat has plenty of chew and flavor, but it’s a relatively inexpensive cut and a clever one to offer. One night it comes perfectly medium rare as ordered, sliced on the smooth puree. On another occasion, when ordered well done, the meat has been sauteed, sliced, and sauteed again, which the diner likes because so many sides are crusty. Both times it’s accompanied by house fries (called chips here), which taste good but are limp, room temperature, and need rethinking.
A 10-ounce burger ($13), a great-tasting patty with caramelized onions and arugula, beautifully medium rare on a brioche bun, is served on a large slate rectangle. Duck confit ($18) is one of the best dishes on the menu, long-cooked duck legs with moist meat falling off the bone. This too is served on slate and comes with the potato puree-vegetable mixture, but all of the vegetables are almost too hard to cut into. It’s jarring to eat on stone if you move a knife across it.
Garlic-herb evoo with baguette ($3) is a delightful garlicky mixture of oil — Kourda calls it a light version of chimichurri — flavored with rosemary, thyme, parsley, cumin, and balsamic vinegar. Mushroom soup with truffle oil ($6) tastes too much like the oil and not enough like mushrooms. Artisan greens with mushroom duxelles and shaved Parmesan ($8) is all mesclun and would benefit from other crunchy greens. Very good artisan pasta with wild mushrooms ($15) seems lost in its outsized bowl.
Deep-fried Oreos ($6) are always on the menu (and always on the house for the wee set). Other desserts, which can be quite good, might be a tiramisu cake or chocolate mousse cake, sourced from an array of nearby bakeries.
I would encourage the chef to be more daring and the seasonings to be bolder, to reach more for the harissa, to figure out the fries so that sweet little steak and the burger can shine, to enliven the menu, to show his neighbors in Watertown what the food where he comes from is really like.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.