No disrespect meant to North Cambridge.
But in this culinarily sophisticated city, the stretch of Mass. Ave. from Porter Square to Arlington has always been a fine-dining dead zone. Casual eateries come and go alongside a few beloved old-timers. But with the possible exception of Elephant Walk, not since Ristorante Marino closed nearly a decade ago has North Cambridge had a restaurant with loftier aspirations.
Until The Table opened in January.
Now, in a shack of a building that previously housed a pizzeria and a budget copy shop, is this improbable newcomer: a stylish prix fixe restaurant offering a $65 four-course menu designed by a former “Top Chef” contestant with a fondness for confit, foie gras, cockscomb, and pork belly. Little wonder where Carl Dooley gets these proclivities: He was chef de cuisine at Craigie on Main under Tony Maws, a man whose Twitter bio trumpets his love of “crispy skin, charred gristle, roasted bones.”
The space is just big enough for an open kitchen, 20 seats, and a standing wine counter, making the dining experience so intimate that the person who cooks your meal may very well also bring it to your table. The place pulses with conviviality, and Dooley’s joy at finally having a restaurant of his own is palpable.
Don’t come looking for burgers, flatbreads, or anything similarly prosaic; eating here feels like being a research assistant in Dooley’s personal food laboratory. Gleefully inventive, he embraces what he calls a “global pantry,” a cupboard filled with New Zealand plums, Indonesian peppercorns, purple mustard, mango pickles, and more than a dozen types of dried chile. The world tour on your plate could range from Asian-inspired beef tartare to Indian-influenced hake to Austrian-style veal short rib.
Dooley’s creations are high-minded without being (too) pretentious. Some of the meats are, as one of my dining companions puts it, “challenging,” but the restaurant’s cosmopolitan clientele seems up to the challenge. “So many other chefs paved the way for our generation,” Dooley told me in a phone interview. “People are coming in and saying, ‘Beef tongue — awesome!’ Whereas when Tony Maws came in 10 years ago, people said, ‘Beef tongue — no way.’”
Be warned: Getting a table at a conventional dinner hour — say 7 or 7:30 p.m. — can be maddening. The restaurant usually seats guests between 5:30-6 p.m. and again between 8:30-9:30 (there’s sometimes a third seating on weekends). You can try to negotiate a different time, but you may end up having to settle for eating uncomfortably late or uncomfortably early.
There are two choices per course, plus a vegetarian option. The offerings change daily, although alterations from day to day (and even week to week) are often slight, so space your visits widely if you’re hoping for more variety. For an additional $40, add beverage pairings to each course. And allow two hours for your meal to be served from beginning to end.
Little on the menu is not made on the premises, from the excellent, airy sourdough bread (served in fat toasted wedges) to the cultured butter (pungently seasoned with cheese rinds) to the intensely flavored sorbets and ice creams. This is big-tasting food, the kind where new qualities keep surfacing as you eat — like an amuse bouche of duck consomme that gets brightness from ginger and heat from jalapeno, and another, black bass tartare, made with “little flavor bombs,” as Dooley calls them, of shiso, jalapeno, and cumin.
Squid can be rubbery. Not here. A salad of grilled squid and citrus is stellar — thin, tender rings of shellfish paired with mint, salty olives, meaty pistachios, and slivers of sweet/tart grapefruit and oranges, the flavors all dancing on the tongue. Beef tartare, with peanuts, carrots, and tiny grilled mushrooms, gets daring heat from Thai green peppercorns, the intensity building as we chew.
I especially love the sumptuous pork ragu with roasted cauliflower. The vegetable takes center stage, and the meat — small pieces of braised shoulder — is a tantalizing accent. Fennel, piquillo peppers, and ricotta salata add depth.
Different variations of a mussel stew are offered during each of my visits. Its base is roasted broccoli rabe, Calabrian chile, and green garlic, sometimes paired with fregola, sometimes garganelli, sometimes whole wheat fusilli. It gets wonderful crunch from breadcrumbs fried in olive oil and tossed in Meyer lemon zest. Its flaw is that it’s richer than it needs to be; it would benefit from less butter.
Hake and scallops are magnificently prepared — a model of how to cook seafood. Both are elevated by a beautiful, bold curry with pickled golden raisins, almonds, chickpeas, and butternut squash.
Vegetarian options are usually just meatless versions of what’s on the main menu, and often lack the oomph of the original. As one of my dining companions said of the veggie adaptation of that wonderful mint-olive-citrus salad: “It’s lonely without the squid.”
The Table’s pastry chef, Mary Edinger, used to work at No. 9 Park, and her desserts are ethereal. Bad meringue draws comparisons to Styrofoam; her intriguing citrus pavlova is like sweetened air with a surprise inside: creme fraiche. Meyer lemon curd and grapefruit-Campari sorbet add sugary tang and a touch of bitter. Our only quibble: Isn’t this a better dessert for the dog days of summer, not still-raw March?
The dark chocolate marquise is, simply, perfect: decadent, sticky, deeply sweet. It is drizzled with butterscotch and paired with superb coffee ice cream; its only out-of-place note is candied hazelnuts, like unwanted pebbles disturbing its otherwise smooth-as-silk texture.
After dessert comes more dessert, this time on the house: one night, little cream puffs. Another, cubes of chocolate-caramel fudge. And every guest leaves with a small homemade granola bar adorably wrapped in brown paper.
The Table is housed inside Season to Taste, a catering company, but its food is entirely different. That’s because owner Robert Harris, upon hiring Dooley to helm the restaurant, chose to give him free rein. Or, as Harris puts it, “I decided I was just going to create a platform for Carl to be awesome.”
And so far Carl is living up to that mandate quite nicely.
2447 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-871-9468, www.cambridgetable.com . All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible (one step up).
Prices: $65 prix fixe four-course menu, plus “snacks” at wine counter for $7-$11.
Hours: Tue-Sat 5:30-10 p.m.
Noise level: Moderate; may be difficult for larger groups to converse.
What to order: Salad of grilled squid and citrus, beef tartare, pork ragu with roasted cauliflower, glazed local hake or glazed local scallops with butternut squash curry, citrus pavlova, dark chocolate marquise