Craigie on Main
853 Main Street
Travel time from 77 Mass Ave: 10 minutes walking
I finally understand how Craigie On Main has appeared on the “Best of Boston” list year after year. After just my first visit, it easily moved to the top of my list, too. Off Main Street in Central Square, Craigie is anything but casual, perfectly pairing complex French cuisine with the simple taste of local New England. Classic 1920s prints decorate one wall, while another is adorned with myriad cooking pots and books. The rustic French design is complimented by a spacious open kitchen where diners can watch Chef Tony Maws busy at his art. The menu fluctuates with the seasons, and it’s compiled only with the freshest and often organic, but always local meats, fish, and vegetables. If you’re craving passionfruit out of season, you won’t find it on this menu. But if you want the richest, tangiest rhubarb flavor during the spring, the “Market Fruits Crisp” paired with canela ice cream is definitely for you.
There are several menu options for every occasion at Craigie On Main. If you’re looking to be ravished by exquisite and complex dishes that the chef dreams up on the spot with your taste recommendations as his outline, then the “Craigie Experience,” which comes in the 6-course and 10-course versions will suit your needs. If you desire vegetables for every part of the meal, many of the dishes can be prepared vegetarian. If you’d prefer to select your dishes from a menu, then there’s a prix fixe menu price for an appetizer, entree, and dessert plus a paired dessert wine, ($75) or you can simply choose anything from the à la carte menu. My date and I chose the à la carte menu for a lighter experience, but I intend to return to the restaurant for the culinary surprise of the “Craigie Experience” in the near future.
Craigie teases the pallet with an amuse bouche or a “little bite” before the meal begins. I received the house-cured pork belly with a slice of local mozzarella drizzled in Alphonso olive puree, and my date was presented with a Moroccan-spiced cured salmon with a touch of orange vinaigrette. The pork belly was good, but the cured salmon was spectacular, giving us a hint of what was to come.
We started with the grilled Spanish octopus with cipollini onions, hearts of palm in a lemon salad, and garbanzo bean puree ($18) and the assiette of three house-made terrines with traditional accompaniments that included whole grain mustard and jams ($15). The octopus had that perfect grilled texture, just a bit crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, and the deep-flavored puree and vegetables had a hearty quality to them. The flavor wasn’t intense, it wasn’t overbearing, but it was just perfect. The terrines, especially the foi gras au torchon, were quite rich with a velvet smoothness — or so we found out when we finally took a bite. It was almost too difficult to take a fork to such a beautiful culinary arrangement that might have fit in as a piece of artwork on the wall. Almost.
We then moved on to the entrees along with a side of traditional French asparagus. I ordered the Schmaltz-poached wild Alaskan king salmon mi-cuit with beets, asparagus, and horseradish-whitefish roe vinaigrette ($30). Mi-cuit is a method by which the salmon is cooked for a longer period of time at a very low temperature, allowing it to retain the tender quality of raw salmon (our waiter was extremely kind to describe the process to me). I had never had mi-cuit before, but I was wowed. Salmon is usually somewhat dry and tough after being cooked and generally loses most of that distinct fish flavor, but the salmon I had at Craigie was nothing like that. Its flavor could stand on its own even without the delicious vinaigrette, and it had a melt-in-your-mouth quality. My date ordered the all-natural hangar steak with oxtail ragout, spinach, and glazed shallots ($36). The steak was milder than the usual affair without its characteristic sharpness, but the meat was still tender, flavorful, and rounded out nicely by the ragout.
Finally, we came to the sweet treat — the grand finale of every meal. I ordered the cardamom and vanilla arboria rice pudding with glazed pineapple bits, Macadamian nuts, and topped with a pina colada sorbet ($10). Rice pudding is a favorite treat of mine, but this tasted only vaguely like the Plain Jane rice pudding I’ve had before. A closer description would be a tropical and refreshingly-chilled pineapple beverage on a hot deserted beach in the Dominican Republic. The dessert may have looked small on the plate, but it was packed with flavor and I relished each bite. My date adores chocolate, so he picked the Taza double chocolate tart with espresso ice cream and hazelnuts ($10). We learned (again from our helpful waiter) that the Taza chocolate is an organic rich chocolate locally made in Somerville with a taste similar to Mexican drinking chocolate. The chocolate tart wasn’t especially impressive, and the espresso ice cream was a bit strong for me — but if you’re looking for a dessert version of your classic espresso/chocolate combination, this one will probably be the right choice.
However, the meal didn’t end there. A few more light snacks were brought to our table including tea-infused panna cotta and ancho chile and cardamom-spiced Valrhona chocolate soup to wrap up a restaurant experience which was spot-on.
If you’re looking for a place that’s willing to invent crazy concoctions with an unknown result, then Craigie On Main isn’t that place. Craigie does, on the other hand, deliver solid classics using the “best of the market this morning,” to quote the menu itself. The creativity of the chef is not observed through his wild ideas but rather through his ability to use what is local and fresh and come up with a delicious menu that very day which will leave any party satiated and satisfied every time. Chef Tony Maws doesn’t try to impress; he just does.
Craigie is the perfect setting to celebrate graduation or your thesis defense, but if you’re looking for a quality and tasty meal at a lower price, try stopping by on Sunday nights after 9 p.m. for the Chef’s Whim. A four-course meal during this weekly event costs only $40, and the six-course meal is $55. As usual, vegetarian options are available.