Review: Darwin’s

July 23, 2008

How have I gone this long without reviewing Darwin’s Ltd.? A true travesty, that.

I’ve been going to Darwin’s for six years now, which is a longer relationship than I have with some people. I first discovered the original (Mt. Auburn St.) location during a theater production, which was often the context in which I ate there during college. Since then I’ve had to find excuses, since it’s somewhat out of the way, but the detour is wholly, utterly worth it. I may have mentioned before that I’ve saved up to be able to buy a sandwich from Darwin’s—it’s just that good. Read the rest of this entry »

OM for Valentine’s Day: No Like

February 18, 2008

Sig Fig: “I feel like I just lost an article of clothing.”

Me: “What?”

Sig Fig: “I feel like we came in, and they took my pants, charged me a lot of money, and then told us to go away.”

Read the rest of this entry »

It has a dumb name, but stay with me.

October 9, 2007

So I’d gotten pretty excited about the prospect of Om some time ago, when I learned they offer a vegan wine dinner once a month and a vegetarian pre fixe once a week. This semester’s class schedule all but rules out the former, so we used the Sig Fig’s class cancellation as an excuse to try out the latter tonight.

I should say up front that I did a little research on the restaurant before I even made our reservation. I don’t always do this, but I had a vague memory of hearing bad things about this place, and I kind of wanted to see what other people had to say. The reviews I found were about half and half–half totally raved, and half couldn’t believe the rotten service and weird decor. This meant that I went into tonight’s dinner totally prepared for an extra dose of Cambridge pretension.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed. We arrived and headed for what looked like the podium–you know, the podium that the hostess stands behind? Yeah, I walked over to that, and stood there for a minute wondering if the three women chatting behind it might, you know, work there. One of them shot me a sidelong glance, but resumed her conversation. Finally someone else asked if she could help me, at which point She Of The Sidelong Glance suddenly expressed an interest in my presence. She mustered the finest fake smile I’ve ever seen and ushered us upstairs.

At this point our service went up in quality by about a thousand percent. I have a feeling we were waited on mostly by the manager, because he was the only dude in a suit–everybody else was in Angsty Waiter Black. He was extremely pleasant, especially when he managed to get us the pre fixe even though it didn’t appear to be A Thing That Was Officially Happening. (He said “We’re not really advertising that right now,” but when we got our receipts they had “Join us every Tuesday for vegetarian pre fixe!” written across the bottom.) I will say that the service bordered on Excessively Attentive, since the guy whose sole job was to remove dishware from the table was all but hovering at the end of each course, and there was a separate guy just to bring the food. Also Mr. Suit re-described everything as it came to us, but that’s sort of the risk you run in fancy restaurants.

The food was totally awesome. Bottom line. We started with a tiny cup of pea soup, compliments of the chef, that was insanely tasty. Not split pea. Extremely fresh, creamy, and a bit of spice. First course was a string bean salad with fresh greens, lemon vinaigrette, and Gorgonzola. The pairing was a sparkling wine, which is never my first choice, and was sort of underwhelming. I really enjoyed the crisp beans and the lemon-ness, though. Our entree was a sweet and spicy tofu with forbidden rice. So. Amazing. Look, I’m not a tofu guy. It’s certainly grown on me in the last, oh, 19 months, but I’ve yet to have a day when I think, “Gee, I could really go for some tofu.” But this? This was amazing. Crispy, spicy, citrus-y, salty… and it went amazingly with the wine, a very nice red blend. (I also have the wine list written down somewhere, which our server happily copied down for us. I can add that in later.) Dessert was an olive oil cake with a little tasty sauce and a tiny scoop of something that tasted much more like cheesecake than ice cream. I actually kind of wish the portions on this had been smaller–two slices of cake was almost a slice too many. But too tasty not to eat all of.

I definitely want to go back for crazy vegan night, and I would also like to try a thing with meat in it, since I like to eat meat things. Oh, and the decor isn’t that weird. But try to avoid going on nights with any kind of special event going on, because they will almost certainly drown out your conversation.

Cambridge style, double dippinz.

September 14, 2007

I should probably make this a short entry, because Hey! Martinis! But I had a totally awesome day, in that my class was bookended by Darwin’s and Charlie’s. So what better way to get back on the blogging horse than to review the two?

(For what it’s worth: I still plan on writing some things about Nobody Passes. And I was in San Francisco for a while, and I ate some good food. I’d like to share that experience with the world. Eventually.)

Darwin’s is basically the best place to get sandwiches in Boston. I can say that with confidence, because I’ve explored approximately one percent of Boston. No, but seriously- get thee to Darwin’s. If you feel uncomfortable paying seven dollars for a sandwich, this is not the place for you. If, however, you’re the kind of person who forgoes meals in the summer in order to finance a sandwich and you lick the paper it was wrapped in, this is totally the place for you. Fun fact: Darwin’s sells alcohol, produce, local spiced nuts, and prepared foods. I don’t have much experience with these other categories, although I think I maybe once bought a madeline. Another fun fact: Darwin’s now has two locations. If you’re accustomed to the original spot, what with the gigantic Busch sign and all, you may discover that the Cambridge Street location has sandwiches with different names. Please do not panic. They did this to be all clever, because the sandwiches are named after surrounding streets, and this location is surrounded by different streets.

At the original (Mt. Auburn) location, I feel compelled to recommend the Mt. Auburn (turkey, avocado, vinagrette, mayo, tomato, lettuce, cheese upon request) as it is my standby. Other outstanding picks are the Longfellow (delightfully thin sliced ham, sharp cheddar, apple, lettuce, tomato, dijon) and the Fayerweather (turkey, swiss, sundried tomato pesto mayo, lettuce, tomato). I haven’t tried everything on the menu, but I probably should before I die. Note to vegetarians: Only two items on the menu are really for you. Sorry. Junebug, this is not. But you can also check out the myriad of prepared salads, and if you show up during the lunch rush (not for first time visitors! Seriously, shit gets intense. If you’re intimidated or have trouble making up your mind, do everyone a favor and don’t show up between 11:30 and 1:30 on a weekday. Or maybe at all.) you’re guaranteed that one of the special sandwiches will be a veggie option. Did I mention the special sandwiches? The special sandwiches are Special. I’ve only been to the Cambridge Street location once, and it seemed perfectly fine. Possibly with better seating, and definitely pushing the wireless more. I cannot speak for their sandwiches.

Charlie’s holds a special place in my heart. If you’re a person who’s not affiliated with Harvard and you like to get drinks in Cambridge, a thought that probably crosses your mind a lot is “Dear God, how can I get away from these fucking annoying Harvard kids?” Charlie’s isn’t necessarily the place to do that. I mean, I discovered the establishment as an undergrad, and I was one of the least socially adept people I knew. So clearly there are going to be some undergrads there. But by and large, it’s the go-to locale for townies and hipsters. Is that appalling to you? Yeah, it kind of is to me, too. But hear me out! Reasonably priced drinks, diner-esque fare, and waitstaff who will respond to a request like “I just got out of a three year relationship because of homophobic government policies, and I’d like something to make me forget that.” (I’m not plucking that out of the air; my companion for the evening made that request. He also made the request “Bring me something sweet and hard,” and “Bring me something sweet and alcoholic, but I have an eight thirty class.” These were met with a mai tai, a Long Island iced tea, and a Sexy Sexy. No joke. It said so on the receipt.)

There is no way to dislike Charlie’s, unless you are an asshole. Be warned that the place gets busy, and be warned that you’ll almost certainly get carded if you’re not a regular. Places don’t stay in the square for twenty years by being irresponsible about the people they serve. Oh, and also? If you ever refer to Charlie’s as Charlie’s Kitchen, you need to stay a few feet away from me, or I’ll need to strangle you with the Harvard lanyard you’re conveniently wearing around your neck.

Review: Grendel’s Den

August 13, 2007

I feel a little weird reviewing Grendel’s since I’ve been going there for years, but in my ongoing quest to be more like my brother (and break into the realm of food criticism) I’m doing it anyway.

Grendel’s is sort of a hole in the wall, and they really like it that way. I think they probably have a website where you can read all about their struggle to obtain a Cambridge liquor license, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now. Needless to say, they serve booze, and now they even serve it outside. Outside! (For the record, I’ve yet to eat or drink outside; I find the noise and cigarette smoking from the adjacent green area annoying.)

Here’s the basic thing you need to know about Grendel’s: You should never pay full price for their food. This isn’t to say that they serve bad food. I’ve really only ever had one thing I wasn’t pleased with there. (The spinach and artichoke dip. Totally underwhelming.) But the fact of the matter is that you should not pay full price for the caliber of food they serve. Thus, I recommend always going during happy hour, which shouldn’t be hard. If you buy at least $3 in drinks all your food is half price. Half price! Note: it will take you two ginger ales to accomplish this, but only one ginger beer. And it doesn’t matter if you’re dining with a total lush–unless you pony up at least three bucks for a drink of your own, your food will be full price. Did I mention that you shouldn’t pay full price? You really shouldn’t.

Some things I’ve had at Grendel’s, which were totally fine but never amazing:

potato skins
mozarella sticks
some kind of wrap with bacon and goat cheese
stuffed portabella
spinach pie
veggie lasagna
French dip

On my most recent visit I ordered the turkey & havarti sandwich, which is perhaps my favorite thing to order. It’s very simple and always pretty much the same–tasty but not really remarkably so. A similar sandwich at Darwin’s, while more expensive (significantly more expensive during happy hour), is notably tastier. The chips that accompany the sandwiches are always disappointing. I suspect they may be a peculiar off-brand. (You can, in fact, choose coleslaw to accompany your sandwich, but I almost never order a slaw in a restaurant. I just don’t like mayonnaise enough to risk it.)

My dining companion got the pork tenderloin, which she described as dry (as she apparently expected) but fine. It came with a massive amount of mashed potatoes and gravy, which were unremarkable, and sauerkraut, which we both loved. Why have I never tried sauerkraut before? Possibly because it always looks vaguely disgusting. It is, nonetheless, tasty.

The real draw at Darwin’s is the drink selection and atmosphere. They simply don’t serve crappy beer, and their chalkboard emphasizes that. They have rotating specials on tap and always have Original Sin, which is possibly my favorite cider. They also carry lambic, which for the uninitiated is a delightful cross between fruit soda and beer. I recommend the cherry. (It’s imported, so it’s kinda ‘spensive.) I once had an insanely tasty spiced cider (by “spiced,” I mean “with rum in it”) on a winter night, and I suspect it might be a regular feature as the weather gets chilly.

As for atmosphere, it’s a cozy place. Both in that you feel vaguely at home, and that you’ll probably end up bumping elbows or knees at some point in the course of the evening. The servers are all quite nice and the service is generally quick. There’s also a particularly great bartender working a lot of the time–the Sig Fig and I once tipped him extra because we saw how politely he handled a rude customer. I should warn underage readers (not that I condone underage drinking, of course) that there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get carded. The addition of outdoor seating seems to have brought strict ID checks at the door at certain times, and I get carded at tables maybe forty percent of the time. We weren’t carded on my recent visit, but a nearby table of several people I vaguely know was. (Granted, one of them is someone who probably gets frequently mistaken for a twelve year old, as she is extremely short. But the three of them were all definitely well above legal drinking age.)

In any event, I rate Grendel’s “Pretty much any time you want to kill time in Cambridge, especially if you don’t want to spend very much on dinner, and if you’re wearing a t-shirt but don’t want to feel self-conscious about it.”