Technology steals the spotlight
Firebrand Saints mixes art, intellect
Men wearing dark suits and rectangular, thick-framed glasses enter Firebrand Saints, a Kendall Square restaurant that opened in the fall. According to their uniform, they are either architects or agents from a European version of “The Matrix.’’ At the next table, friends are buttoned into vintage dresses and worn plaid shirts, their exposed skin a doodle pad of esoteric tattoos. The air is thick with irony and intellect. Chefs are at work in an open kitchen. A burly sweetheart of a bartender makes Old Fashioneds. Over the bar, a video installation airs on a row of televisions. The first screen shows an old British movie, while the others display and remix words from the film. On one wall, a house is being sketched in light beside a tree, an art installation that draws images from Google Street View. Another wall is covered in work by graffiti artists. Tables are made from old truck hoods. In the women’s room, the customary message commanding employees to wash their hands is written in Japanese.
Firebrand Saints is the restaurant most likely to be the birthplace of the latest Internet meme, to host a conversation where people speak in hashtags, to inspire a satirical television show called “Cantabrigia.’’ A collaboration between MIT and restaurateur Gary Strack of long-lived favorite Central Kitchen, it is trying to do something genuinely interesting - bring art and technology into a culinary environment. It should be a natural alliance, judging from Harvard’s successful Science and Cooking lectures, molecular gastronomy, the curiosity of chefs and bartenders when it comes to new methods and ingredients. But Firebrand Saints is so concerned with the trappings, it fails to focus on the food.
The menu doesn’t express the spirit of experimentation one might expect. It centers on old-school rotisserie, with meats from naturally fed, humanely raised animals appearing in dishes such as a Roman-style porchetta plate. The sliced pork is dry, listless beside accompaniments of polenta and kale.
A “French Dip’’ sandwich au jus is in quotation marks for a reason. There is neither dipping nor jus. “It’s incorporated into the sandwich,’’ our server explains. Very well incorporated. The bun acts as a sponge, sopping up any liquid that may have once graced the roast beef. French Dip is a sandwich ripe for revival, the kind of meaty, retro fare restaurants all over town are embracing (see: beef Wellington). Someone else will do it better.
Anyone who regularly roasts chickens will be dismayed to see the spit-roasted lemon-sage bird set down before them at Firebrand Saints, flabby-skinned rather than crisped, beside a confusing medley of black olive mashed potatoes, capers, and leeks.
These are the disappointments. Burgers are generally better, particularly a version made of veal and pork topped with coleslaw and roasted tomatoes. A lamb and sirloin burger with pickles, frisee, and harissa aioli sounds as though it would sock you in the mouth with flavor, but its punch is weak. A beef version, a composite of sirloin, chuck, and brisket, begs for customization. You can has cheezburger: American, cheddar, or blue? There are also house-made sauces and accompaniments such as bacon, avocado, fried egg, and poblano relish from which to choose. Sides come separately: good, skin-on steak fries, potato salad with hard-boiled egg and bacon, coleslaw, and more.
Firebrand Saints does well with snacks, too. Onions and scallions are battered and deep-fried so expertly they become something more than plebeian bar food. Rock shrimp get the Buffalo treatment, a perfect rendition, their spicy sauce cut nicely with blue cheese fondue. But tortilla strips come with unpleasantly sharp house-made salsa; optional cheese sauce tastes too strongly of the Pretty Things beer with which it’s made.
For something lighter, a pretty tuna Nicoise salad offers a generous portion of rare tuna with haricots verts, tomatoes, potatoes, and hard-boiled egg. One can also choose from several mezze, such as a nicely smoky baba ganoush. Hummus contains chewy, cold bits of ground lamb, not an improvement on the vegetarian version. Whipped celery root with dates and goat cheese combines good flavors that don’t quite gel.
For dessert, there is a fruit pie of the day and an unforgivably boring roster of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. But Toscanini’s is so close by. . .
There are nearly 30 kinds of beer on tap and in bottles and cans; wines by the glass are standard issue, while the bottle list is more interesting. Cocktails such as the Perfect Peach (rye, vermouth, and candied peach) and the Oil Slick (blackstrap rum, cinnamon, and lime) don’t live up to their allure when the balance of ingredients is off.
Firebrand Saints works as a techie clubhouse; it’s very busy after office hours. But it offers a menu of comfort food in a setting that begs for something more adventurous. There are many options to choose from these days in Kendall Square, which means diners can be more particular. Firebrand Saints is summed up by a visit to its website, an installation in itself, the restaurant’s logo plastered over pages for NASA; Sosolimited, the group behind the video installation; street art organization Wooster Collective; MIT course catalogs; and more. There’s a link to a menu and a map, but finer points like the restaurant’s operating hours are elusive. There’s nothing wrong with having your head in the clouds. When it comes to user experience, however, the basics matter.