Dining Out

A kitchen with real chemistry

Near MIT, Catalyst gently pushes the boundaries of convention

By Devra First
Globe Staff / November 23, 2011
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Dining right now is having a real “Revenge of the Nerds’’ moment. The world’s most famous chefs come to Harvard to talk about science and cooking. Bartenders create cocktails with centrifuges and rotary evaporators, formerly considered lab equipment. (Whatever happened to good old body shots?) A recent episode of “The Simpsons’’ showed Marge, Bart, and Lisa eating a “Caesar salad’’ of lettuce gel, egg ice, crouton foam, and anchovy air at a restaurant called El Chemistri. Food and technology are trending hand in hand. An August Gallup poll asked respondents to rate their feelings about 25 US business sectors. The computer industry received the most positive ranking, followed by the restaurant industry. All five of the top sectors were related to computers or food. (The federal government placed dead last. Perhaps Congress should start a food blog. Or do something really ridiculous, like declare pizza a vegetable.)

Meanwhile, we find Catalyst, in the area surrounding MIT that is suddenly bursting with restaurants. Despite its name and location, it is not techie or whiz-bang. The only chemical reaction it speeds up involves dopamine. We eat here, we feel pleasure. Catalyst serves delicious food largely prepared using traditional methods: the braise, the sear, the pickle. Of course, these are science, too.

The kitchen, headed by chef-owner William Kovel with chef de cuisine Anthony Mazzotta, turns out dishes that gently nudge convention without trying to overthrow the hegemony. One that I suspect has already become a Catalyst signature is a piece of beautifully roasted cod in chowder reinforced with mussels, clams, and potatoes crushed with olive oil and creme fraiche. The broth is chowder refined - lighter and just a bit tart from the cultured cream.

Another very nice dish is spit-roasted chicken, which hasn’t changed much since medieval times. You either do it right or you don’t. An early visit to Catalyst yielded dry meat. Either the process has been refined or my table lucks out. (I suspect I was recognized as a reviewer on several visits.) Now the bird is juicy from breast to leg, accompanied by chanterelles, haricots verts, lardons, and potatoes that cook beneath the rotisserie in the drippings from the chickens.

Catalyst prepares a lot of chickens, which leaves it with a lot of chicken oysters, two succulent little morsels on the back of every bird. They are a home cook’s secret treat, but here they are plentiful enough to serve to everyone, tossed with handmade garganelli, bacon, and black truffle butter. The pasta is well made, but the chicken and truffle butter taste mysteriously blanched of flavor, and the overall dish is bland. At the bar, a rich Bolognese-esque sauce made with pork gets let down by too-thick, undercooked pappardelle. Filled dumplings are more successful - both woodsy mushroom ravioli and sweet squash tortellini are packages of pure flavor.

If it’s fall in New England, we must have pumpkin. Catalyst’s kitchen finds something different to do with the gourd. Thin strips of pickled sugar pumpkin, sweet-tart and surprising, are strewn among seared scallops with bright pea greens and mellow roasted cipollini onions. The lovely dish looks as vibrant as it tastes.

Another signature is tournedos of beef, basically a smaller version of filet mignon, not generally one of my favorite cuts. Yet this may be the best beef dish I’ve eaten all year. The two lobes of meat are as tender as you would expect, but with a deep, rich taste. They are served with rainbow chard, garlic-parsley sauce, and bordelaise sauce, and crowned with taleggio-filled ravioli. (The dish makes you feel sorry for the vegetarians who have ordered the dull, dry chickpea fritters for their main course.)

Catalyst’s appetizers are culinary fluffers, awakening your hunger before the more-interesting main course. A salad of pickled baby vegetables is crisp, sour, and light. Red and golden beets are served with greens and shaved fennel, but goat cheese croquettes are the best part of the salad; served alone, the crisp and creamy spheres would be a stellar bar snack. Chicken liver mousse spreads like peanut butter, silky and mild on grilled bread, with mustard, pickled onions, and a little pile of parsley and celery leaves to counteract the richness.

Sometimes first courses fall flat. Onion soup tastes too beefy, its texture oddly aerated. One of the menu’s most-appealing sounding dishes - seared spice-crusted hiramasa (similar to kingfish) with orange-yuzu syrup and cucumber-radish salad - needs more spice in the crust, more citrus in the syrup, more dressing on the salad.

Dessert includes ever-changing, inventive flavors of ice cream (a too-icy honey-calamint, lemon balm-bourbon); a whimsical root beer float that contains the herb chocolate mint, crushed blueberries, and sassafras-ginger syrup; and a butterscotch-passion fruit pudding into which you dip batons of pound cake that have been deep-fried. “Pounds cake,’’ quips a bartender.

As for the bar area, it is the place to be. Beverage manager Jason Kilgore and staff mix a fine Toronto. The wine list offers casual, food-friendly bottles such as a 2009 Domaine de Gournier viognier from Cevennes for $26, as well as harder-to-come-by selections. (Earlier this month, the restaurant announced on Twitter that it had six of the 150 bottles of Weingut Gantenbein pinot noir to make it from Switzerland to the US this year.)

It’s also a much happier place than the dining room - a handsome, social space with booths, bar tables, and a two-way fireplace surrounded by couches. There’s plenty of eye contact. The dining room feels cold, the lighting is unflattering, and it seems you always have your back to everyone.

The quality of Catalyst’s service depends on the server. Which is a way of saying, more training is in order for less-seasoned staff members. One evening, a server inclined toward the mispronunciation of ingredients showers attention on one guest, making overly familiar jokes, while treating the others with minimal interest. (He cuts one off midsentence with a teasing swat, saying, “I wasn’t talking to you!’’) Yet on another visit, we’re attended by a suave gentleman who juggles conversation, jests, wine recommendations, and non-obnoxious amounts of flattery with grace, while fitting far too many plates on a small table, delivering dishes at a perfect pace, and making sure everyone has everything he or she needs at any given time.

Kovel worked previously at restaurants such as Jardiniere in San Francisco, Radius, and Orrery in London, and he was in charge of the kitchen at Four Seasons restaurant Aujourd’hui when it closed in 2009. And that is why Catalyst is called Catalyst, a human reason, not a chemical one: The loss of the job was the push he needed to open his own place.

Clearly, he was ready.

Devra First can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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300 Technology Square, Cambridge. 617-576-3000. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $9-$15. Entrees $15-$28. Desserts $9.

Hours Sun 5-10 p.m. Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Fri 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-11 p.m. Sat 5-11 p.m.

Noise level Just right.

May we suggest Chicken liver mousse, seared scallops, tournedos of beef, roasted cod, butterscotch-passion fruit pudding.

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