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    devra first | dining out

    Cambridge’s Shepard is setting things on fire

    Tomato salad with sea salt-spiked feta and popped kernels of corn at Shepard Restaurant.
    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    Tomato salad with sea salt-spiked feta and popped kernels of corn at Shepard Restaurant.

    Sometimes talent hides in plain sight. Susan Regis has never achieved the name recognition of other top-tier chefs, despite a decades-long career and accolades including a James Beard award. She played second fiddle to Lydia Shire at restaurants such as Biba and Pignoli, stayed mainly behind the scenes at UpStairs on the Square, surfaced at the short-lived Pava in Newton with Jason Bond, one of the most undersung pairings in local restaurant history.

    Now the chef once featured in a New York Times story headlined “Understudies by Choice” is front and center. Regis and Rene Becker of Hi-Rise Bread Company opened Shepard in June, in the former Chez Henri. That feels right — two of Cambridge’s most abiding culinary talents occupying a space that was long a local institution.

    At Shepard, Regis is fully visible. One can see her in the open kitchen, through the flames of a live fire, in front of a Julia Child pegboard hung with cookware. One can see her aesthetic in every dish, sometimes beautifully simple, sometimes carefully whimsical. Regis is one of the purest cooking talents around, her instinct for flavor, texture, and just plain loveliness bolstered by a devotion to craft. Becker brings perfectionism and an exacting eye to the front of the house. Peter McKenzie (Rialto, Ribelle) is chef de cuisine. Some on staff are at a point where they might consider opening their own restaurants, alongside many of their peers; one senses this extra layer of seasoning will make a real difference when they do.

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    Shepard is open and bright — big windows, wood tables, white walls adorned with an ink drawing of a felled tree and a bright green sculpture that resembles a slug. The restaurant’s focal point is the hearth at back, food charring on grates, logs ablaze. (The chef poking at them, eyes red and tearing, suffers so your food may be infused with smoke. Someone get him some eye protection. The only bad seat in the house is the communal table directly in front of the fire, where it is unpleasantly hot and smoky.) A wide marble bar is a fine place to enjoy a solo supper or sip one of the well-made cocktails. Bar manager Nic Mansur’s list is streamlined in keeping with the restaurant’s sensibility: a gimlet, a Negroni, an Old Fashioned, a margarita. No need to embroider. The wine list is almost all French, with many organic or biodynamic selections. Hi-Rise regulars may recognize some bottles from the bakery.

    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
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    The food, too, is Francophile if not French, seasonal and local, as if it needs to be said. Dishes appear to be alternately prepared by peasants and fairies, with an occasional assist from a toddler enamored of finger painting. The menu leads with snacks (“petite”): ricotta scented with chamomile, alongside rye crackers with honey; sausage pinwheeled and skewered, blackened in spots from the fire, and served with charred lemon. These are elemental and satisfying.

    Move on to the “moins petite” — oh, the tortured terminology the rise of small plates has created. There is the loveliest tomato salad around, made with fat, ripe slices of different hues and handfuls of halved cherry tomatoes sprinkled in white, irregular shapes: crags of creamy, sea salt-spiked feta and popped kernels of corn. The plate blooms with fronds of anise hyssop.

    Shepard’s dishes contain the entire herb patch — tarragon, Thai basil, lovage. For anyone with a vegetable garden, the pleasures of restaurant dining at this time of year, in this era, can dull: “These tomatoes served up like holy relics? I have more than I can handle at home. My blood runs gazpacho; I eat charred eggplants for breakfast. I’m starting to pickle the pickles.” But Shepard reenvisions ingredients with such originality, one is happy to see them again.

    Baby leeks are gone but not forgotten. Charred sweet and tender, they came with green romesco sauce, a Cambridge cousin of Catalonia’s calcots. Shepard’s version of a salad involves burned escarole with pine nuts, currants, and jagged flakes of cracker dough. To those not fond of wood-fired food: Shepard may not be your cup of lapsang souchong. Order a certain combination of dishes and the whole meal comes to the table burned. Everything might also be served over various splatters of beige, tahini-esque puree. It can get repetitive.

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    Change cures that. For a time, striped bass heads and tails were served with chili remoulade and breakfast radishes, heavenly leftovers. Beet cappellacci, now off the menu, were pasta hats in a smoky, lusty tomato sauce with hunks of lobster, sprigs of Thai basil, and slivers of candy-striped beets (take that, North End fra diavolo). And the gnocchi served when the restaurant first opened, tender, almost stretchy, with morels and peas, are a sweet but distant memory.

    Instead there are basil pici, dark strands of chewy hand-rolled pasta, accented with roasted cherry tomatoes and house-made striper bottarga (use every part of that fish). Tender grilled octopus comes with smoked eggplant and chanterelles, unexpectedly pickled, the flavor bright against the other ingredients. Restaurants try everything these days to get repeat business, from fried chicken nights to trivia competitions. A constantly changing menu continually filled with compelling dishes might be the best ploy there is.

    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    Half-chicken pieces with cipollini onions.

    Shepard doesn’t lose momentum with its “grande” plates. The soupe de poisson is a bowlful of littlenecks, red-skinned potato (unfortunately undercooked), and a tautog head complete with fins and tender cheek meat. The best part is the broth, complex and piquant with poblano peppers. And larger dishes are the finest reason to have a wood fire. Witness the perfectly grilled bavette steak, served on a wood board with grated radish mounded atop its own roots and leaves. As for Shepard’s half-chicken, it’s the kind of thing that can make a restaurant — juicy, crisp-skinned, hacked into pieces and served with sweet, soft cipollini onions and a green sauce bright with lovage. It is so good, so simple, one could eat it every week with joy.

    Where things do falter is dessert. The restaurant takes the dialing-back-on-sugar thing to heart. A rhubarb galette with buttermilk ice cream is downright sour. A grilled doughnut with coffee ice cream has the texture of a bagel. A buckwheat waffle is thin and tough, like a pizzelle crossed with a crepe, and the accompanying roasted watermelon sorbet is flavorless and an unattractive shade of brown. Sumac enhances its sourness. The best things are the simplest: blueberry frozen yogurt sprinkled with granola and lemon balm, a perfect peach with honey, creme fraiche, and shiso.

    With that simplicity, with its relaxed finesse, Shepard is a fine New England analogue to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. It is so good to see Regis and crew setting things on fire.

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