Magnolias Restaurant: Southern Comfort Food
Fine Southern dining, knowledgeable waitstaff are a throwback to the Old SouthBy Josiah Q. Seale
1193 Cambridge St.
Dinner for two, no drinks: $45-$75
In today’s society, the much-maligned South of the United States is often sneered at as a backwards region of social ineptitude. Forgotten are the contributions of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, or of Otis Redding and even REM. The concept of the impeccably-mannered Southern Gentleman has sadly been replaced by an image that revolves around Bushisms, NASCAR racing, and gap-toothed bingo.
For the better part of 20 years now, Magnolias co-owner and head chef John Silberman has tried to show the fallacies in this negative stereotype of indigenous Southern culture. The final outcome of his endeavor reflects diverse elements of Cambridge society, producing an amalgamated menu that is neither fully Yankee, fully Dixie/Caribbean, nor fully a fusion of the three. All told, the Magnolias experience is very original, creating a happy niche for itself in the Boston restaurant scene.
Although in Inman Square, the overall feel of the restaurant is that of an underground-trendy Greenwich Village establishment, the sort that is continually being discovered by Manhattan foodies. With only about 25 tables, brightly colored walls hung with a variety of mismatched plates, and a whitewashed pressed-tin ceiling, the surroundings are simultaneously cheery and down-to-earth. The mismatched plate motif continues into the table settings, there joining magnolia buds in vases and serviceable flatware.
In keeping with this theme, the waitstaff also upholds the feeling of cheer, plus authenticity. Although they are very solicitous and attentive to detail, they are also friendly and comfortable with their surroundings. A quick glance at the menu shows the appropriateness of the heterogeneous decor. As one might expect from the restaurants sub-title, old favorites such as Cajun popcorn shrimp and fried green tomatoes are not absent from the appetizer list. More surprising, however, are the oven-roasted Portobello mushrooms stuffed with warm goat cheese and chopped pecans, or the simple Maryland crab cakes and their not-so-simple chipotle tartar sauce.
As prelude and accompaniment to the appetizers, a basket of cornbread, biscuits and banana-pecan bread arrives, all in the shape of muffins. Although seemingly simple, biscuits of high calibre are in very short supply in Boston, making a nice surprise of their unsolicited appearance. The atypical form factor does not detract from their taste, but it does add a dash of unconventionality to the whole experience, making them that much more fun to eat.
Upon embarking on the appetizers, one quickly discovers that the sauces and accoutrements provided with the pieces are not meant as decorative additions; rather, they are integral parts of the dishes, without which the overall experience suffers. For example, when eaten by themselves, the aforementioned crab cakes leave a passably enjoyable impression, but also leave the question as to whether or not they were perhaps too heavy. With the addition of a goodly-sized dollop of the chipotle sauce, however, the dish comes alive in a contrast of flavors, viscosities and temperatures. By the same token, the shrimp by themselves are merely a pleasant if commonplace staple of Louisianan cuisine; it is with the spices in the sherry-scallion dipping sauce that they stand apart as a worthwhile and interesting dish in their own right.
As enjoyable as the appetizers are, they rightfully take second place when compared to the main course offerings. The server proved to be reliable in her recommendation of beverages to accompany the selected dishes. Filet mignon was matched with a pleasant, lightly tannic Syrah with a long finish. More complex than most, it opened up very nicely in the glass and set off the steak in a way that was simultaneously unobtrusive and curiosity-provoking.
The steak, a pan-blackened filet mignon topped with a pecan and Maytag blue cheese crust and served over a port wine sauce, is cooked to perfection and matched by the sauce in a delectable way that only port can achieve. Sadly, the pecan, cheese crust ensemble proves too much. It is best left to one side to be picked at while one thoroughly focuses on the delectable steak, port sauce combo. Nonetheless, its juices do impart an innovative flair to the meat.
The jambalaya, with its toss of Andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp, oysters, crawfish and spicy rice, is exactly what those familiar with the Louisiana specialty might expect. For full effect, the dish is best enjoyed in large bites, since the quantity of ingredients makes it difficult to obtain a reliable sample without at least a moderate amount of the mixture. Although the dish is spicy, Silberman’s skill shows through, in that a sip of a well-chosen beer is enough to soothe the fire and prepare the eater for the next bite.
If Magnolias drops the ball anywhere, it is in the realm of desserts. The pecan pie is unremarkable and overly rich, although this is somewhat compensated for by the homemade vanilla ice cream and chantilly. The creamy vanilla bean flan is good, but the mocha chocolate sauce over which it is served is overpowering and best avoided when eating the flan. This gap in Magnolias menu is unsurprising, however. Silberman has no pretense of being or even desire to be a dessert chef; the desserts are clearly there to satisfy those who cannot go without them. While they certainly fulfill the role adequately, they are not a prime reason to visit the restaurant; diners would be best off simply enjoying the dishes for which the restaurant was created.
Throughout the experience, Magnolias stays faithful to its underlying goal. As demonstrated by their two-month regional themes, occurring eight months out of the year, they have managed to go beyond just Cajun and show off the rest of Southern food. Although the physical restaurant is certainly not an excursion into the stuffier stratospheres of haut cuisine surroundings, it is precisely this departure from the painfully stereotypical nouveau-riche business model that makes Magnolias so refreshing.
All in all, Silberman and his (co-owner and manager) wife Amelia have succeeded in their efforts. They have put his training in Louisiana under well-known chef Paul Prudhomme (among others) to good use here in the Northeast, bringing to life an innovative and refreshing ideal, and the Boston restaurant scene is all the better for it.