The new restaurant Forage popped up like a mushroom this spring. It sits on the outer pastures of Harvard Square and occupies a well-known space that feels like a speakeasy.
Though there's a sign out front, maybe it should be removed. This is a concept that prizes stealth, subtlety, and locally gathered, easily-looked-past ingredients.
Forage is a fine counterweight. On the other side of Cambridge, Kendall Square booms. The flood of start-ups and the biotech billions have given rise to a clutch of gleaming eateries. Take Cafe ArtScience, a modernist, laboratory-style restaurant where you can quaff vaporized liquor or lime clarified in a centrifuge.
There is no gleam in the storied basement at 5 Craigie Circle, a location that's been home to five previous restaurants over close to 40 years: the Peacock, Cafe Celador, Butterfish, Craigie Street Bistrot, and Ten Tables, the Jamaica Plain branch of which Forage owner Stan Hilbert managed for eight years.
Instead, the space feels thoroughly lived in, with the vintage honeycombed radiators that crawl the walls, the chalky gray banquettes, the long Oriental carpet that ferries you to the bathrooms. Ceilings hover low, heating pipes take sharp turns, single-filament bulbs pulse. This could be a hashish den as imagined by Henry James.
It's fitting that the men who run the front of the house at Forage wear flannel shirts. They radiate negative pretension (or is that maximum pretension?), sporting the sort of scruffy good looks that make you wonder if they've just exited Club Passim after banging out an early set of jangly, lo-fi Creedence covers.
In other words, we've left behind New Cambridge and landed back in Old. How easy it is to lean back in this soothingly semi-shabby bohemian atmosphere, the sort of vibe that today's restaurant designers pursue fruitlessly, more often landing on the decor equivalent of a pair of "distressed" True Religion jeans.
Adding to the allure, and also impossible to reproduce: the sister brick apartment building that sits obliquely outside Forage's windows. It harks back poignantly to a grittier era — to a time when rent control not only ruled the land, but underwrote a climate of free expression, experimentation, love.
The dining experience at Forage, directed by chef Eric Cooper, channels some of this same spirit, as does the rigorous cocktails menu, courtesy of Joseph Choiniere, who capitalizes royally on the idea of foraged ingredients. Care for bee pollen and lovage in your iced gin? You should. It tastes fabulous.
It is possible at Forage to order right — and also wrong — and exit feeling a simple, unconflicted happiness. All of it works on you — the hideaway location, the understated decor, the attentive and sweet service, the sense that diners, waiters, and cooks from previous incarnations continue to knock around the old place.
For its part, the food at Forage rarely transcends, but it's also never un-good. A starter of oyster mushrooms and fresh favas — a gorgeous sight — presents as a spare, early-summer flourish, even if the mushrooms are salt-choked. Thankfully, fava skin mayo and black locust flower jelly wait on the plate's margin to mellow the assault.
If some of that salt were redirected to the charcuterie plate, the dish would satisfy thoroughly. The chicken liver mousse is luscious and deeply flavored, yet the pork and aquavit pate never vaults beyond a single, unremarkable dimension. Again, wonderful foils wait in the wings, in this case sour cherries and hemlock tips, both biting and assertive.
Salads, which a place like Forage should really kill, cry across the board for sharper, more plentiful dressing. The red leaf lettuce reads on the menu as a riotous must-have — with orange segments, lacto-fermented carrots, almond cookie, goat cheese vinaigrette — yet nothing brightly binds it all together. Same goes for strawberries over pea greens, another potential standout, if only the two had been brought into real conversation.
Thankfully, these flaws do not extend to the soup. The borscht, among my favorite dishes here — in fact, among my favorite soups anywhere — displays a meaty roundness that has our table convinced it is spiked with beef stock. Not the case. The chilled yellow beets, traced with crème fraiche, anise hyssop, and blueberry preserve, shine with their own earthen clout.
Another starter, scallop spaetzle with brown butter, crispy sage, and braised green garlic, again includes delicious parts, but it could use a triple blast of the brown butter. And that same brown butter would complete a dish of spectacular but dry black pepper maltagliati with fava greens, black walnuts, breadcrumbs, and Pecorino.
Without asking, our server splits this entree portion of the pasta in two, as she does with our soup, the sort of personal touch that makes Forage feel as if you're eating in someone's very cool home. Sampling different wines is also encouraged, another mark of generosity in our era of precision pours.
The entrees at Forage are all quite good. The lamb tajine has enough verve that even in hot July one is happy for the weighty treatment. The meat is perfumed with floral spices and kept further aloft by preserved lemon and loamy couscous fritters. The pan-seared bluefish, though expertly cooked and joined by pea greens, red onions, and crisped potatoes, thirsts — as several dishes do — for some, OK more, OK any, liquid. Say a splash of olive oil, butter, or tzatziki.
As with the borscht, the fish stew hits every craveable note. Where you might expect the Mediterranean treatment, in this case hake and mussels float in a profoundly tasty fish stock with broccoli rabe, carrots, and toasts dolloped with aioli. It's far from the usual — a personal and memorable take on what could have simply seemed strange.
Finally, dessert, which follows through on the idea of foraged ingredients and yet is never jailed by it. The strawberry spoom, fruity and acidic, is given creamy body with chamomile custard. The rye wafers, appearing decorative, will have you wanting to steal Forage's recipe. And the frozen cranachan, traditionally a Scottish dessert, comes with crabapple puree, local honey, and the perfect oatmeal cookie.
It's hard to think of a more covertly gutsy, fitting finale to a quietly delicious dinner in this Cambridge speakeasy. Oatmeal cookie vs. centrifuged lime? Please give me the cookie.
5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, 617-576-5444, www.foragecambridge.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Starters $9-$15. Mains $24-$29. Desserts $9-$18.
Hours: Daily 5:30-10:30 p.m.
Noise level: Sweetly tranquil
What to order: Chilled yellow beet borscht, lamb tajine, fish stew, black pepper maltagliati, strawberry spoom, frozen cranachan parfait
Ted Weesner can be reached at email@example.com.