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devra first | dining out

At the Backroom, just food. Really good food.

Bourbon-bathed pork belly at The Backroom in Waltham.
Bourbon-bathed pork belly at The Backroom in Waltham.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
Slow-smoked chicken.
Slow-smoked chicken.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Since 2013, one of the best reasons to visit Waltham’s Moody Street has been meat. Joshua Smith, a chef with local experience at Tico and the Four Seasons, left behind upscale restauranting and opened Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions here. The shop sells the sausages and pates he creates under his own label, New England Charcuterie, and piles them into fat, decadent sandwiches like the Katz — pastrami, mustard, and Swiss on rye.

Anyone who specializes in curing meat for a living likely has a long-term plan. When the adjacent wings shop shuttered, Smith and crew took it over to open the Backroom. And it’s back to restauranting, on the chef’s own terms.

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The Backroom and Moody’s Delicatessen are intimately connected. Diners enter through the shop, glancing longingly backward at the cases of meat and cheese, drawn forward into the handsome dining room: warm wood beams, stone-tiled walls, meat as decor, links and haunches hanging from the ceiling. An ample bar has the feeling of a library for wine, with a ladder to reach the highest bottles and a shiny dispensing system. The modes of food production are on display. The meat slicers are sports-car slick. The copper dome of the wood-burning oven glimmers in the back. Multihued enameled pots are stacked on shelves. It is the kind of space that makes you want to cook. Barring that, eating will do.

The menu highlights and incorporates charcuterie, and meat appears in some form in almost every dish. The food isn’t fancy. There are salads and flatbreads and grilled steaks. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed. Service is professional, not deferential. But make no mistake. As Moody’s is a serious deli, the Backroom is a serious restaurant.

If there are meatballs, they are the best meatballs you’ve ever had. The texture is coarse but not dense, like French steak hache, as if chopped by hand. They are made from the scraps of great cuts of meat, a mixture of what’s on hand (their official name is Never the Same Meatballs), and they eat like steak. They are cloaked in red sauce and showered with cheese. They are, to use a fancy word, awesome.

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A wedge salad is deconstructed into its essential elements. There are a few leaves of baby gem lettuce, a pile of chopped tomatoes here and one of red onion there, and a spill of blue cheese dressing, the whole thing held down by one thick slice of smoky, just-fatty-enough bacon. What’s that hiding underneath, at the salad’s center? It’s bacon jam, sweet and meaty, a dollop of intense, condensed flavor.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a frisee salad I’d refer to as memorable. The Backroom’s version coats the pale, curly fronds in caramelized shallot vinaigrette, tops them with crisp-tender shreds of duck confit, and crowns it all with a soft-cooked egg. It’s so simple, so well proportioned.

Wedge salad.
Wedge salad.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Pork belly is bathed in bourbon, its alternating layers of crispness and richness highlighted by sweet maple and offset by the vinegar pucker and crunch of dilly beans, slivers of spring radish, and vegetal turnip puree. It’s lush and simultaneously elegant and down-home. Get an order of spicy-sweet jalapeno hush puppies with something, too — perhaps one of the well-made cocktails.

Fans of the Katz won’t be able to resist the pastrami flatbread. A crisp-edged crust comes topped with the meat, Swiss, and sauerkraut, drizzled with Dijon aioli and sprinkled with chives, a perfect storm of savory and tangy flavors. The pastrami is great. The kraut might be even better.

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There is such a feeling of comfortable generosity here, from the charcuterie plates to the whole chickens and vast steaks meant to be shared by the table. The meats can be ordered up alone, as trios, or as boards of six selections. The Lebanon bologna is nothing like regular bologna, a salami-esque sausage accented with warm spices. There is truffle salami and the spicy, spreadable pork sausage ’nduja (not that spicy, alas), rustic pork pate studded with pistachios and the creamiest, most wonderful chicken liver mousse. Accompaniments are simple: olives, pickled hots, toasts. Nothing to detract from the charcuterie.

Charcuterie plate.
Charcuterie plate.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A slow-smoked chicken comes off the spit and onto a plate, served in pieces with roasted onions and asparagus and chewy, nutty spatzle. The flavor is excellent, the composition of the dish appealing, but the chicken is a bit dry. These large, meat-centered dishes are where the Backroom sometimes falters. Wood-grilled skirt steak is dry, too. Served with chimichurri sauce, smoked Wagyu brisket is extremely tough when hot; leftovers nibbled cold the next day are better. (An accompanying gratin of charred broccoli is plenty appealing, though, its burned edges amplifying the brisket’s smokiness.)

A carnitas flatbread, piled with smoked sausage, cotija cheese, and salsa Creole, lacks the balance and contrast that temper many of these meaty dishes; the flatbread itself is less crispy, more puffy on this occasion. A dish called Bacon & Eggs is a swell idea, merging the virtues of Bolognese and carbonara, made with black pepper spaghetti. I love the aggressively peppery pasta, but the dish winds up overly rich. And a tiny serving of mac and cheese made with beef and Parmesan cream sauce has no flavor at all — it tastes like overcooked pasta with butter.

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One might expect less attention to dessert where meat is a focus. Not so. Frozen things are a particular pleasure. The highlight of a lemon olive oil cake is the lovely strawberry-rhubarb sorbet that accompanies it. And a chocolate terrine with salted caramel ice cream and peanut brittle is the perfect mix of sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy. Never fear: There is a bread pudding that incorporates bacon.

Chocolate terrine with salted caramel ice cream and peanut brittle.
Chocolate terrine with salted caramel ice cream and peanut brittle.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Backroom’s wine list is a surprise. It is heavy on bottles from California, with an emphasis on luxury. There are high-end cabernets to order up with your 32-ounce prime cowboy steak. And there is a section labeled “The Holy Grail,” featuring the Screaming Eagles and Mouton Rothschilds many of us have only read about — available by the bottle, sure, but also by the glass for $50 and up. (These are dispensed via Coravin, a device that pierces through the cork with a needle, pressurizes the bottle with argon, then allows the cork to reseal once withdrawn.) It’s not like any other local list — neither focused on low prices nor obsessively obscure. It avoids current fashions and follows its bliss. It’s refreshing.

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The same can be said of the Backroom in general. With so many small plates and cerebral concepts on current menus, it is a tonic to just eat food, really good food: salads and flatbreads and steaks. “Come in, have fun, eat well, live well,” reads the bottom of the Backroom’s menu, and that’s what you’ll do. What a pleasure.


Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.