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At Harvard Square’s Parsnip, beige elegance, until you head upstairs

Roasted cauliflower with cumin brulee at Parsnip in Harvard Square.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
Seared scallop with boudin blanc.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe Staff

Editor’s note: Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the Globe names a new critic. Starred reviews will return at that time.

We Bostonians are consistent in our lamentations.

We rue our dreadful traffic. We bemoan the infernal T. We curse our maddening sports teams. And, when we look across the river, we grieve the vanishing charms of Harvard Square.

The Tasty, gone. Elsie’s, gone. Casablanca, gone. The Wursthaus, Bow and Arrow, Skewers, Herrell’s — all gone. In their place, we complain, has come an influx of chain retailers, turning the square into a more generic, less groovy version of its former self.

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What, then, could possibly fill the shoes of another unforgettable Cambridge institution, UpStairs on the Square, which — including its time at its original location as UpStairs at the Pudding — was a Harvard Square mainstay for more than three decades before closing in late 2013?

Enter four-month-old Parsnip, a sophisticated newcomer with big ambitions that has yet to decide whether to cast off or embrace the shadow of its predecessor.

Where UpStairs was gleefully unconventional — riotous pinks and purples, gaudy gilded chairs, leaping zebras painted on the walls — Parsnip is all neutral tones, abstract art, sleek marble, and hardwood floor. A fireplace flickers genteelly. Affluence is palpable among the clientele. Overlooking the green oasis of Winthrop Park, the dining room still offers prime people-watching. But the preschooler-on-acid motif has been replaced by grown-up interior design.

On the right night, classy service matches the classy decor. It is superior on one visit: engaging, knowledgeable, attentive without being fussy. The next, it has slipped; more than once, we scan the room for our server and wonder impatiently when our orders will arrive.

But when the service shines, it shines brightly, like when the bartender — told there is a lover of sweet cocktails in our midst — makes us a cosmo with not just a sugared rim, but also a sugared lime. When someone at our table asks for chocolate to sprinkle on his cappuccino, the kitchen — in a MacGyver move — devises a small cheesecloth sifting bag filled with cocoa powder, just for him. And the dining room has a practical feature I love: purse hooks at the table corners, similar to the kind often found below bar counters.

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Parsnip’s menu is a frequently changing work in progress. Chef Peter Quinion tells me he’s “still playing” based on feedback from customers and staff. The downside of that experimentation is you can’t be sure something you liked — or hope to try — will be on the menu next time. Oh, how I look forward to the cardamom panna cotta on my second visit! But it is gone when I return, replaced by a new dessert.

Fortunately, two of the kitchen’s finest dishes tend to be staples: quail and cauliflower, which “we get so many raves about we’d be foolish to take them off,” Quinion says. The cauliflower — a pretty mixture of white, green, and purple florets — is perfectly roasted and accompanied by one of the menu’s most unusual items: cumin brûlée. It’s a traditional creamy brûlée minus the sugar, like a savory pudding.

I’m reluctant to order quail since the laborious deboning seems more work than it’s worth, but Parsnip serves a mostly boneless version rolled into a hazelnut-sage roulade. It’s tremendous, marred only by oversalted farro risotto.

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A seared scallop appetizer is perfect. Simply seasoned, the delicate seafood speaks for itself. Its novel accompaniment is boudin blanc, a sausage made with scallop meat that’s moussed, poached, crumbed, and deep-fried. The end result is basically a fancied-up fish cake.

Dark chocolate brownie with milk chocolate mousse and popcorn ice cream.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Other appetizers are less successful, like an undistinguished dill-cured salmon and broccoli soup, which needs more pep. Yet an entree I expect to lack oomph, cardamom-poached monkfish, is elevated by the spice, a citrusy hit of orange, and a buttery phyllo cracker flecked with sesame seeds.

Other than an overdone beef fillet, all the meats we try — duck, lamb, and veal — are expertly cooked, although each comes with a similar veal-stock sauce that makes them difficult to differentiate after a few bites.

Among the vegetarian choices, potato gnocchi with truffles, chestnuts, wild mushrooms, and Garrotxa (a Spanish cheese) is far better than the salty potato-artichoke terrine. And the restaurant’s eponymous vegetable makes several appearances, from alongside a Cornish hen to, imaginatively, in parsnip-maple ice cream.

Dessert is where Parsnip becomes more adventurous. The dark chocolate brownie with milk chocolate mousse would be appealing on its own, but an added dollop of popcorn ice cream — truly infused with popcorn flavor — is a delight. So is sesame pound cake with grapefruit segments and banana ice cream, a wonderful blend of tropical notes.

Gingerbread sticky toffee pudding with candied citrus and mascarpone mousse needs a spicier kick. But a Seckel pear atop lightly honeyed whipped ricotta is ideal as just a slightly sweet ending to a meal.

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By our second meal, we have come to view Parsnip as a handsome place, but often blandly so. Some dishes are quite good; others seem restrained. Too often, the restaurant is so literally and figuratively beige. “Dispassionate elegance” is how one of my companions summed it up.​

Poached Seckel pear atop lightly honeyed whipped ricotta.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Then we climb two flights and our entire perspective changes. All the verve missing downstairs is present in abundance in Parsnip’s upstairs lounge. Darker and moodier, it is lush, cozy, and inviting. Here, too, is a fireplace, but this one crackles with ambience. Behind the bar are charming retro glassware and apothecary jars holding colorfully inventive liqueurs — banana, framboise, maple sapling.

The lounge menu is limited but impressive. We love the vinegary house-made potato chips, dill salmon burgers garnished with crunchy shaved fennel, and robustly flavorful Moroccan-spiced lamb kebabs. The bartender is cool at first, brusquely handing us menus without making eye contact. But he rapidly warms up when asked to invent a cocktail on the spot, and his off-the-cuff creation, made with gin and peach liqueur, is delicious.

In this hip, homey alcove is the feeling of intimacy and spunk we had been craving below.

Parsnip is clearly passionate about hospitality but still finding its way, like an adolescent experimenting with different personalities. Is this a special occasion restaurant for Harvard students and their parents happy to drop $38 on noisettes of lamb? Or is it a fashionable cocktail lounge serving great drinks and reasonably priced, high-quality bar food?

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For now, it’s functioning as both. But if downstairs is the restaurant’s brain, then upstairs — with all its idiosyncratic charm — is its heart and soul.

PARSNIP

91 Winthrop St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617-714-3206, www.parsniprestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices: Appetizers $12-$17. Entrees $24-$38. Desserts $11-$13.

Hours: Tue-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m. (Lounge Tue-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight.)

Noise Level: Low to moderate.

What to order: Roasted cauliflower, seared scallop, veal tenderloin, potato gnocchi, salmon burgers, Moroccan-spiced lamb kebabs, sesame pound cake, poached Seckel pear, dark chocolate brownie with popcorn ice cream.


Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SachaPfeiffer.