You’re never going to make it. You’re on the wrong end of the street. You’re too far up the road to attract enough customers.
Encouraging words like these greeted Nathan Sigel when he opened his upscale Waltham restaurant, Tempo, in 2005. He chose a spot on Moody Street’s Restaurant Row, but on the very edge of what was then its sleepier half, not its booming section near the movie theater and fancy riverside apartments.
“Our block is where it’s at,” says Sigel, who is also Tempo’s chef and whose business is thriving more than a decade after pessimists predicted its demise.
Whether Sigel was prescient or just lucky — or maybe he blazed the way for restaurateurs who came after him — Tempo has become a Moody Street mainstay on what’s evolved into one of its buzziest stretches. Next door is a stylish charcuterie shop, Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions, and attached wine bar, The Backroom. Across the street is The Gaff, a popular pub. More than a half-dozen other eateries are footsteps away.
As those newcomers showed up, Tempo didn’t let itself become a shabby veteran. Two years ago, after signing another 10-year lease, Sigel renovated the 135-seat restaurant, closing for several weeks to improve its acoustics, streamline its layout, and remove wasted space.
He also upgraded furnishings and swapped out a lot of woodwork for more-modern subway tile, creating a look that Tempo’s designer describes as “a little tribal Amazonian.” The dining room is dominated by earth tones, with eye-catching patterned booths, woven-backed chairs, and funky dangling light fixtures.
Half the restaurant is a pretty bar with several TVs, but somehow the noise doesn’t bleed much into the dining room, where service is warm, efficient, and attentive. And the bathrooms have two noteworthy novelties: sink faucet handles that double as hand dryers and doors that can be pulled open with your foot rather than your hand, a godsend for germophobes.
The food at Tempo is good, and sometimes — especially when the kitchen eases up on sauces and lets the pure taste of its meats, seafoods, and vegetables shine through — very good.
We love the variation on a bread basket: light, airy, slightly sweet miniature beer-batter biscuits, served wonderfully warm. Salads are beautiful and creative, particularly the red and golden beets cut into chunks and matchsticks, then mixed with arugula, granola, goat cheese, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. In a charming touch, it’s served in a stainless steel mixing bowl with ring handles.
A salad of mixed greens, pumpkin, butternut squash, pepitas, dried cranberries, and mascarpone cheese with pumpkin vinaigrette makes ideal use of seasonal flavors. Even if you’re not fond of gnawing on bones, try the “dirty” chicken wings, which get standout flavor from a homemade dry rub that pops with Cajun zing. The wings are smallish, but there’s nice, lean meat beneath that spicy skin.
An appetizer of “unrolled” tuna and salmon is basically disassembled sushi: a plate of fish, avocado, sticky rice, nori, sriracha aioli, soy, and wasabi. It all tastes fine once combined, but it seems disjointed; when it comes to sushi, we prefer to have the assembly done for us.
The kitchen’s occasional heavy hand with sauces is apparent in the fried Brussels sprouts with smoked bacon and blue cheese, an oily, salty, delicious trio. But what is that distracting sugariness? Sigel says it’s lemon vinaigrette made with the liquid of caramelized onions — to my taste buds, an overly sweet addition to an already flavorful appetizer that needs no dressing at all.
Seafood is one of the kitchen’s strengths, including spice-rubbed seared yellowfin tuna with coconut curry and an entrée special of cashew-crusted cod drizzled with honey-miso. The fish is expertly cooked, the sauces light, the servings generous.
Another special, a swordfish chop, is sometimes described as a prime rib of swordfish. A bone-in piece cut from the collar, it’s fatter, moister, and milder than the steaks and fillets more commonly seen on menus. A pineapple salsa jazzes it up, but the fish itself is bland, its texture oddly mushy.
The sauce problem emerges again in the mushroom- and horseradish-crusted salmon. The “crust” is actually a thick paste that’s deeply mushroomy and gets great zip from the horseradish. But it’s too salty and ultimately overwhelms the fish. When we visit again a week later, the salmon has a new, autumn-themed preparation: pan-roasted with butternut squash, cranberry-sage risotto, and apple cider beurre blanc.
To test the kitchen’s ability to prepare uncomplicated dishes, we order a simple, sauceless, seared salmon fillet. Verdict: perfection. Same for the simple, sauceless sea scallops and simple, sauceless seared shrimp. If only Tempo would do more of this. Some of the restaurant’s dishes are overly busy with competing flavors, or go overboard with ingredients (like too much brown sugar in the mashed sweet potatoes), yet the kitchen excels at simplicity.
For instance, we adore the meltingly tender short ribs adorned with nothing but reduced braising sauce. The meat is paired with thick, creamy wild mushroom risotto that’s intensely scented with mushrooms and Romano cheese. Risotto is often a lumpy, heavy, tasteless affair, but Tempo’s reminds you how excellent it can be.
A grilled porterhouse pork chop has many colliding tastes: apple-cranberry sauce, bacon-onion jam, more of those sugary Brussels sprouts, and mac ’n’ cheese with shell-shaped pasta, a cute touch. We prefer the mushroom marsala pork, an entrée special that deserves to be a menu staple. The meat is tender, the sauce simultaneously rich and light, and there’s no skimping on mushrooms.
Desserts change so often that the whole five-item list is different on our second visit. Bread pudding, apple tart, and chocolate cake are all fine, but not memorable. The best of the bunch is a velvety pumpkin pie mousse layered with cinnamon mascarpone, served parfait-style. Next time I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll get my sweet fix from Lizzy’s Homemade Ice Cream just down the street, another reliable anchor of Restaurant Row.
474 Moody St., Waltham, 781-891-9000, www.tempobistro.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $9-$14. Entrees $19-$32. Desserts $8-$10.
Hours Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10:30 p.m. (limited late-night menu until 12:30 a.m.)
Noise level Medium
What to order Beet salad, roasted pumpkin salad, chicken wings, short ribs, simple seared salmon fillet, pork marsala, pumpkin pie parfait