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Maws reviews Craigie on Main

Posted by Devra First  July 14, 2010 10:47 AM

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A while back, I sent the following out into the Tweetosphere: "Re-reviewing restaurants: what do you think?"

The following reply came, from Craigie on Main chef-owner Tony Maws. He said: "with everything involved in opening(ever been there?)and 1st few months, what about review for 2nd year? More accurate-oui?"


Globe Staff Photo/Pat Greenhouse

Get me re-review!

Heck no I've never been there. I do not have the stomach for it, and I admire anyone who does, whatever the end results may be. (At Craigie on Main, I thought the end results were right nice. I gave the restaurant three stars in my review.)

Were I a chef, I'd certainly want a re-review in Year 2. But as a critic, it's not possible to revisit restaurants so soon, except in unusual cases.

So I invited Maws to re-review Craigie himself. Guess what? He likes it!

Here are his reflections on where the restaurant is now:

It’s been quite some time since Devra First originally reviewed Craigie on Main, giving us three stars. As we hit the 18-months mark, I thought it would be a good time to share an update on what we are cooking up – from philosophy to menus.

Craigie on Main opened in November 2008 as the next chapter in the story of Craigie Street Bistrot, which was born back in the fall of 2001 and closed in 2007. I often tell people there were things about Craigie Street that I will always miss and some things that I’ll never miss -- if you had a chance to visit us there, you know what I’m talking about. As we worked on creating the space for the new location, it was paramount that our mission, focus, and philosophy all remain exactly the same. To underscore this to ourselves and our guests, we kept the Craigie identity as part of our new name. What is different is obviously the physical location and surroundings -- we definitely are not outside Harvard Square in the basement of a hard-to-find apartment. Instead, it’s:

Main Street.
Central Square.
Valet parking.
State of the art kitchen.
Full bar.

Many have asked if this was a new restaurant or simply an updated version of a six-year-old fan favorite. Well, the answer is both -- we wanted to operate on a different level, assuming we could figure out how.

The original Craigie Street was inspired by my time working in France. A mini restaurant movement, coined “bistrot moderne” or modern bistrots, was under way in Paris. Young chefs who had been trained in Michelin-starred restaurants went out on their own, bought old-school, off-the-beaten-path bistrots, and transformed them destinations. They could afford to work with the same ingredients as the Michelin-rated restaurants because they dried flowers instead of displaying $1,000 flower arrangements, used mismatched plates and flat-wear instead of Bernardaud, and covered the tables in butcher paper instead of white linen (someone tell me when a certain brand of porcelain will make my food taste better, then I’ll consider buying it!). These chefs produced dishes with the same ingredients and quality, but with less pomp and circumstance as the Michelin restaurants, and they drew huge crowds. Guests could dine in jeans, have appropriate but relaxed service, and eat a phenomenal meal. All of this fit into my dining and cooking philosophy. I am that chef -- I’ve worked for four James Beard Award winners, two French master chefs, and one Michelin-starred restaurant. I was ready to open my own place with a different philosophy and limited resources.

Fast forward to Craigie on Main. While we have invested in some amenities to provide a greater experience for our guests, our overall approach and attitude have not changed. Additionally, our commitment to both "talking the talk AND walking the walk" in terms of sustainability and locally sourced ingredients has taken a quantum leap upward. Devra First pointed out in her February 9, 2009, review that it seems as though our staff has drunk some "Craigie’s biodynamic Kool-Aid." Perhaps some of our crew was a bit too excited and enthusiastic early on, but imagine how you might feel after being liberated from the shoe-horned quarters of the tiny basement and allowed to operate on a stage with room to perform! Also, we tend to attract employees who have passions and values of their own -- that’s why they want to work here. (It’s certainly not because it's easier; our daily-changing menu and frequently changing wine and drinks lists assure that it’s one of the tougher gigs in town.) Regardless, our service rankings have skyrocketed, and we think we’ve learned how, when, and when not to educate our guests.

The old cliche is true: Change does not come in one day. Craigie Street Bistrot was a remarkably different restaurant in year six than in years one through five, just as Craigie on Main is a different restaurant now than it was a year and a half ago when it was first reviewed by Devra First and received three (out of four) stars. Was I happy with this review? That is an interesting question.

The short answer is, of course, "no." This doesn’t mean I disagree with Ms. First's assessment, just that I did not like it because I had greater expectations and we had not yet met them. Did we have a few new cooks who needed to learn our seasonings, equipment, and techniques? Absolutely. Now we are a tighter, more cohesive kitchen brigade operating on the same page. We moved to the new, larger location to be able to say "yes" to so many of the conversations that had ended with "no." Parking, a bar, a full liquor license, room for larger parties, late-night dining, and of course to be able to raise the bar on what we, the kitchen brigade, could achieve with a menu. I can say, in hindsight, that I was proud of our efforts every night in the first few months, but I knew that more time was needed to grow into the space. Just because we had some new toys didn't mean we knew how to use them to reach our fullest potential, and how to use them in harmony to create what we envisioned as the "Craigie Experience."

So what is Craigie on Main now? Quite frankly (and at the risk of sounding self-serving), we are everything I could have asked for and then some.

Diners are literally lining up before the doors open to experience Craigie, and the best part is they can do this in a myriad of ways. Some are waiting to join us at the bar, which fills quickly every night for our "cult-following" burgers, pig tails, craft cocktails, and more. A growing number of others are ready to try our full-on 10-course tasting menu or perhaps share a pig’s head or roasted chicken. Maybe it’s in a cozy corner banquette one night, and the next a seat at kitchen "ringside" for some dinner theater. While we can’t be all things to all people (nor do we aspire to), we can and do offer a wider variety of guest experiences than most fine dining establishments.

Bottom line, however, is that we are making a lot of people happy in an environment where you don’t need to abide by a dress code, or worry about whether it’s OK to use your fingers to pick at the confit milk-fed pig’s head (in the true spirit of bistrots modernes). At Craigie on Main, I cook the food I’ve dreamed of and we're fortunate to have guests enthusiastically lining up, cleaning their plates, and coming back for more. How many stars does this get you? This is also an interesting question.

About Dishing

What's cooking in the world of food.


Sheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.

Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.

Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.

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