Boston loves a hidden gem, especially if it's a restaurant. Small, tucked away, known only to those savvy and discerning enough to seek it out -- this is the kind of place that created the very first burst of culinary devotion around here. And Cambridge -- where knowing what others don't is a time-honored game -- was the epicenter of the craze for places like Chez Nous and the Peacock in Cambridge and Peasant Stock, over the line in Somerville.
Those restaurants are long gone, but the intrigue lives on. And now Garden at the Cellar may be just the place to spawn a new wave.
Ask anyone under 25 or so where the Cellar is and they'll promptly reply that it's the college bar near Harvard Square. However, in November, Garden opened on the street level, filling a long, narrow room with a scattering of tables and seats at the bar. It's a modest spot, distinguished by lavish pots of herbs, friendly and welcoming service, and the lively, young crowd that congregates here.
This is a gem, though, because Will Gilson is cooking. Gilson, who started cooking for paying guests as a teenager, spent the last several years working at Oleana under Ana Sortun as well as cooking on weekends in his family's Herb Lyceum at Gilson's in Groton. He's a natural, and that shows whether the dish is a thyme-flecked soup of parsnips graced with a few shavings of black truffles, a grilled hanger steak with rosemary fries, or a delicate yet substantial vegetarian risotto.
Gilson has what he describes as the "food concession" in the space -- there's also a wine shop next door all under the same ownership. There are oddities: Wines can be ordered only by the glass, and though the selection is short but decent, the prices are rather steep for what is offered. Only recently did the restaurant get a direct phone line. Desserts are offered only sporadically and run out early. The bathroom facilities are sub-par.
But as we taste a flatbread (really a pizza by another name) loaded with exotic mushrooms and sprinkled with ricotta and roasted garlic, none of those niggling points matter. It's terrific, and I have to argue with my companion over the last piece. A margherita version with roasted tomatoes, mozzarella, and arugula pesto is tasty, too, though less interesting than the mushroom flatbread. A bountiful salad of roasted beets with goat cheese and tarragon dressing also captures our hearts, especially with an addition of a green puree that Gilson explains later in a phone conversation is a mixture of spinach, cream, and pistachios. Beet salads are all over the culinary landscape these days, and this extra detail distinguishes his salad.
That sort of flourish enhances many of the dishes. Well-made cod cakes boast two sauces, one a mustardy remoulade and another a garlicky aioli. An appetizer portion of beef short ribs is glazed with balsamic and nicely offset with a horseradish puree. A homey meatloaf has just enough housemade tomato ketchup to spike up the flavor.
A beautifully roasted chicken breast is accompanied by escarole, herb butter that melts into the wine sauce, and tater tots. Gilson could make a fortune from these tater tots -- they're addictive. Crusty outside, melting inside, and very buttery, the tots are not for the dieter, but they're delicious. A grilled hanger steak is the priciest item, but the portion is hefty, and it comes with both thin fries and parsnip puree plus sauteed spinach. Eating one's daily requirement of veggies is very easy here.
Cambridge restaurants leave out vegetarians at their peril, but when they don't, often the choices are pallid. Gilson's vegetarian risotto, though, is delightfully full of mushrooms, squash, and other vegetables and obviously made with care, vibrant enough for anyone to enjoy. Soups are also standouts, another section of the menu often neglected or omitted lately in this era of the ubiquitous tuna tartare. A parsnip soup melds a gentle sweetness with bursts of thyme and earthy black truffles. Tomato soup is also laced with herbs and comes with a chunky little toasted cheese sandwich; the dish is the ultimate in old-fashioned simplicity but wonderfully satisfying.
Gilson says he's trying to make the menu unpretentious. That he does -- the virtues are in the flavors rather in presentation or other restaurant amenities. It's a little like eating at grandma's house if grandma was a very good cook. Garden also manages to be quite affordable since the appetizers are large enough for a light meal and so many dishes are sharable.
When those in the know lined up to squeeze into Chez Nous in the old days, it was because diners were looking for something new, something more European. Now, with restaurant mania in full swing and the exotic and esoteric on almost every table, we're yearning to go back to basics, to honest, well-made food skillfully and lovingly made. Gilson and his Garden fit the need