At T.W. Food in Cambridge, young husband-and-wife proprietors Tim and Bronwyn Wiechmann are doing something different. It's very much of this region, yet not typical of it. Many of the ingredients are sourced locally -- most arrive fresh each day -- and thus the taste of the vegetables, the bread, the eggs is the taste of New England. What Tim, the chef, turns these things into isn't, however. As concepts, dishes such as creme brulee of foie gras, chilled heirloom tomato soup with maple-and-sage ice cream, and "Scotch & Cigars" (chocolate mousse with vanilla-tobacco cream and Scotch syrup) seem flown in from California, where restaurants like French Laundry and Manresa flourish.
But locally, there is hunger for this kind of cooking -- thoughtful, inventive, ingredient-obsessed. Jamaica Plain's Ten Tables (of which Tim Wiechmann is an alum) proved that by earning a cult following with its comparatively down-to-earth take on the aesthetic. T.W. Food has a more rarefied approach. The dishes are highly crafted, layering the unexpected on the traditional, with varying degrees of success. This is brain food. It's always interesting, and often delicious. Every night the place is full, mostly with gray-haired professorial types, but there are a surprising number of families with kids. Huron Village, it appears, was ripe for a little envelope pushing. Who knew?
Because the menu is so focused on the daily catch and crop, it changes constantly. On one visit, roasted wild striped bass is served with kohlrabi puree, apples, and fish-flavored emulsion. The fish is gleaming white, flaking into glorious, moist hunks under the slightest pressure of a fork, its skin pure, crispy fishiness. The kohlrabi and the apples feel autumnal for an early August dinner, but the cabbage-y and floral flavors pair well with the fish. (The foamy emulsion, however, feels extraneous. Is there any non-chef who gets truly excited about foam?)
Another night, the same fish, just as well cooked, is marinated with kohlrabi, cucumber, and maple syrup, and served with house-cured bacon. The bacon and syrup pairing is intriguing (hey, it's good at breakfast), but the dish doesn't work. The bacon is laid out in a pork square, the fish marooned in the center. It looks like a Rothko on a plate. The bacon dominates, salty and a bit slimy to eat a whole plateful of. It becomes monotonous.
At the same dinner, though, we eat Atlantic sea scallops with potato puree, wild mint and oregano flowers, and a citrus butter sauce. This may be less intellectually engaging than the fish-and-bacon dish, but it's more satisfying. The scallops are fist-size beasts, and Wiechmann knows how to cook them; the herbs are bracing against the slightly tart butter. Now for the downside of the ever-changing menu: You may never get to eat a certain dish you like again.
One thing that is almost always available, however, is the creme brulee of foie gras "for my mentors." (Heads up for the Michelin starry-eyed: The chef apprenticed at Taillevent and Arpege.) The custard strikes the perfect balance between liver and creamy sweetness -- richness squared, and definitely to be shared. Many of T.W. Food's best dishes are good because of balance -- where one taste ends, the next begins, drawing out its predecessor.
And then the punctuation at the end of each bite: the wine. T.W. Food's list, also inclined to change, is sorted by producer, with an explanatory blurb about each. It currently features bottles from eight different winemakers: 11 whites and 10 reds in total. Showcasing producers the restaurateurs admire, the list feels both personal and educational. (We liked the austere William Fevre Chablis "Champs Royaux," $45.) There's also a reserve list that includes the likes of Chateau d'Yquem and a '98 Haut-Brion the Wiechmanns deem "one of the world's top five red wines"; these are sold without markup. Each Wednesday, T.W. Food offers a six-course tasting menu entirely composed of local ingredients, and these dishes are paired with organic and biodynamic wines.
Not all of T.W. Food's ideas hit the mark. There are occasional dishes that fizzle -- at the beginning of one meal, a complementary shot of arugula and rosemary soup with raw sea bass fails to amuse the bouche; the cream flavor outweighs the green flavors, and the fish hunks sink to the bottom. The cheese course in the chef's-choice menu one Wednesday is a slice of plain, grainy goat cheese served with wan pieces of brown bread. It needs fruit, nuts, honey, anything.
The room itself is cozy but unmemorable, a brick wall and then some off-white walls, a gray-and-white scroll of floral fabric hanging on one, a few pieces of Japanese furniture, IKEA chairs. This may be an acceptable tradeoff for those who would rather have the owners spend money on plentiful wild chanterelles than super-sweet seats to lounge on during T.W. Food's Euro-slow meals.
Less acceptable may be touches that can come off as precious. The many quotation marks on the menus (is the "Wellfleet" oyster not really from Wellfleet?), the servers' insistence on offering "Cambridge filtered" when relaying water choices -- these could wear on someone with a sensitive twee-o-meter. If these things seemed insincere, I too might roll my eyes. But they feel like they come from the heart, and it's hard to fault anyone for caring this much.
Because what is abundantly clear -- from the ever-renewing menu, the painstakingly sourced ingredients, the grueling schedule the Wiechmanns have set for themselves (in the winter they'll be open seven days a week), Bronwyn's front-of-the-house solicitousness -- is that T.W. Food's owners care. A lot. There are questions: Can they keep up this pace without burning out? What will the menu be like in winter? Will people "get it" enough to want to keep coming back?
But if you don't take risks, you don't broaden the culinary landscape. T.W. Food isn't afraid to reach, and for that it gets major points. Long live difference.