You'd think that discovering a restaurant you really like would be the best part of reviewing. But there comes a sad point when the eating part of my job is over and the realization hits that I can't look forward to returning for another taste. All those joys of being a regular -- checking out the changing menus, the familiar table, the comfort in knowing you'll be well fed -- are denied by the requirements of chasing after the next new place.
My last visit to Rendezvous is particularly bittersweet. When again will I be able to savor the tiny, light gnocchi suspended over a hearty ragout of braised oxtail and sprinkled with shavings of tangy piave cheese? How could I replicate the ethereal garlic soup with a thin stock and heady and fragrant bursts of garlic? What about the duck three ways, with its meaty sausage, its silken confit, and flavorful rare-cooked breast meat -- possibly the best rendition of the bird I've had since the whole roast duck at Salts?
Steve Johnson, who made his name in Boston at Hamersley's and the now-defunct Mercury Bar before becoming chef and an owner of the Blue Room, opened Rendezvous in mid-November. The restaurant, a transformed old Burger King, is in the edgy, slightly grungy center of Central Square. The place has a crisp, spare look, with lots of masculine browns and woods with mustards and streaks of orange for accents. The skylight windows at the front offer a suggestion of outdoors, and the sitdown bar, with its low eating platform and regular dining chairs, make it clear that this is a place for dining, not a cocktail emporium. The waitstaff, which was skittish on a first visit, seems to be settling in.
Johnson's food sensibility shines in Rendezvous. It can be a little disconcerting to realize that he's not behind the stove, as he was when he was at the Blue Room. But his chef, Deepak Kaul, who worked with him for years, is obviously in sync with Johnson, and each time I visited the flavors and execution seemed to get stronger. (Full disclosure: I was recognized by Johnson.)
The style is a little bit French, with some Moroccan touches, a little bit California with a Mediterranean feel. Mostly, Johnson and Kaul create straightforward dishes that taste good. There's a simplicity to them, and you can tell immediately what you're eating. It doesn't mean there isn't depth or intensity; it just means that like the comfortable, relaxed-looking crowd in the room, even on a weeknight, you can enjoy the flavors without having to canvass your palate memory for clues as to what they are.
A thick slab of rare and fine tuna is an example. It's sauced with tonnato, that tuna sauce usually presented with veal. Here the garlicky mayonnaise infused with strong hints of mustard, anchovies, and capers gives the tuna an intriguing foil, intensifying the fish's flavor and yet mellowing it. Braised escarole and a warm potato salad, also tossed with the sauce, add to the celebration of strong tastes. The Gascon-style duck also reflects Johnson's philosophy. Separating duck parts so that the breast can be grilled rare and the leg confited has become common restaurant practice these days. Rendezvous does that beautifully, producing a breast that's moist and a confit that's meltingly tender. A bonus with this dish is a great link of house-made duck sausage, but the real treat lies beneath the duck: white beans, tomatoes, and chunks of smoky bacon are moistened with the juices from the duck to make an irresistible stew that's sustaining, complex, and delicious.
In fact, the vegetables in many of these dishes stand out. For this winter menu, there's no slacking on the protein -- meats and fish are served in substantial portions -- but a good deal of attention is also given to making root vegetables attractive and tasty. A vegetable antipasto is beautiful, and includes sauteed jewel-like carrots with a bit of the leafy top still attached; sweet matchsticks of parsnips; fingerling potatoes; and half a small artichoke covered with a wonderful romescu sauce. An eggplant puree, olives, and crusty bread complete the dish, which is perfect to share. Jerusalem artichokes and celery root accompany monkfish surrounded by littleneck clams. The fish, covered with a porcini cream sauce, is fine; but the vegetables are memorable, with an intriguingly nutty flavor.
It's not that everything works so well. Moroccan lamb tagine tastes all right but is kind of a muddle on the plate -- too many dark colors and somewhat mushy textures. A roast chicken dish with sherry, chestnuts, and crimini mushrooms is nicely done but left me wanting Johnson's old standard of infusing the bird with Moroccan spices. And a dish of lobster and mussels simmered with fennel and harissa is too heavy on the spicing, overwhelming the sweet and mild shellfish.
Desserts seem to be a work in progress. An almond panna cotta is pleasant and gets a boost of tart flavor from a cranberry-kumquat sauce. But an apple crostada is too biscuity and a little heavy. The best is a chocolate cake -- real cake, not a dense slab of wet chocolate -- with an elusive undertone that Johnson, in a later phone interview, identifies as cinnamon and espresso. It's good to get your caffeine in dessert, though, oddly enough for a restaurant that hits so many high notes, the coffee is barely acceptable.
Johnson says he spent years looking for the right location for a new place in Cambridge, and that he was determined to have the kind of restaurant that can attract those who live nearby and serve the food he likes at reasonable prices. Rendezvous isn't perfect, but Johnson is well on his way to achieving what he wanted: a restaurant with food you enjoy eating, in a place you enjoy being in.