Walking in to Craigie on Main I must admit I was hesitant; as a matter of fact, for the sake of full disclosure I’ll note that until Chef Tony Maws won the Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast one month earlier I’d been ignoring suggestions to add Craigie to my agenda largely because the menu simply seemed too much like everything else trendy out there these days – offal this, local-regional that, and nose-to-tail porkcentricity. Rarely one to question trusted palates in the cities I visit it was in fact the Beard Award (and particularly who he beat out) that forced me to reconsider my decision and after a week or so of watching the restaurant’s social media feed I decided to give it a go – a quick e-mail to the restaurant assured me that the tasting menu could be ordered by a solo, that they’d avoid a main course of beef or veal, and that a printed copy of the menu could certainly be made available at the meals end; with a full day of sightseeing already scheduled I opted for 7pm and I arrived right on cue.
Greeted at the door by two young ladies, including one I could only assume to be the dining room manager as I later saw her doing everything from delivering plates to taking orders to hanging coats as the place got increasingly more busy, my reservation was confirmed and my bags checked before I was led to a nice (but poorly lit as the sun went down) two-top along the wall. With the room mostly heavy woods and brick plus some off white wallpaper juxtaposing the white tablecloths and quality service ware I actually liked the feel of Craigie save for one thing – the music which when combined with the open kitchen and room full of graduates, families, and parties was one of the loudest I’ve ever experienced.
Seated for approximately 5 minutes before Joseph, my captain for the evening, would arrive my water was filled (and kept nearly filled to the brim throughout) and a menu was delivered by a young woman. With the menu divided into a la carte options, a six course, and a ten course I asked a few questions (largely to make sure that the main course was not beef and that a copy could be provided) and Joseph explained to me that the way the ten course worked was he would ask if there was anything I really liked and/or didn’t want and the chef would craft it from there; thinking this sounded ideal and noting my likes and dislikes I opted for the ten course and things were underway. With the two-top next to me notably requesting the six course (hard not to eavesdrop when everyone is yelling over the din of the room) and the table of six to my left opting for the ten course I will note that although the restaurant was busy service was quite good throughout and descriptions of each dish were detailed – but save for a couple of items it really didn’t seem like the tasting was tailored at all.
Eschewing the custom of amuses and canapés first (more on this later) my meal would begin with cold bread and colder butter to go with my water. Arriving in a basket theoretically covered with a towel to retain heat, the chilly collection of carbohydrates consisted of two pieces each of sourdough, demi-baguette, and cereal bread – all decent, the cereal bordering on good, but none memorable and all done a disservice by the mundane unsalted butter.
For my first course of the night (little did I know that at Craigie the “ten course” is actually only seven courses as they count the palate cleanser, sorbet, and amuse as part of the tasting) the item listed as the “amuse” on my later printed menu was noted as Three Seafood Preparations: Tartare of Citrus Cured Halibut with Sea Trout Roe, Squid Noodles with Nuac Cham Vinaigrette and Crispy Garlic, and Smoked Sablefish Rillettes with Hackleback Caviar. Served as three single bites in a sectioned porcelain dish and progressing left to right in terms of complexity and depth of flavor I will note that each taste was flavorful and interesting, particularly the squid, but none were anything new or novel and the singular theme of fish and brine did not really do much to prime the palate for other tastes or textures.
Arriving literally on the heels of my amuse, the second course was listed on my printed menu to be Yellowfin Tuna, but from my pictures, notes, and memory the Salad of Scallop Sashimi with Pickled Mango and Red Onion Salad, Avocado-Lovage Puree was certainly not tuna – nor was the it for either of the tables neighboring mine. Again no more than a bite in terms of overall size, this second course was certainly more interesting than the amuses with the flawless mollusk sliced linearly into two creamy rounds and paired delicately with soured mangos and sweetened onions. Texturally complex and utilizing the lovage’s bitter qualities to touch all parts of the palate this was a dish designed to be an amuse both in size and in scope.
At this point keeping pace with the surrounding tables receiving the same dishes, course three would feature Line-Caught Striped Bass with Iraqi Beet Stew, Fresh Florida Rock Shrimp and Farro Verde and upping the ante both in size and in flavor this course was a knockout. Beginning first with the bass; the flesh tender and moist due to olive oil poaching and the skin crispy from a kiss of the pan I can sincerely say it was perfect – one of the best slices of bass I’ve ever had. Paired with sweet shrimp, smoky cubed beets, and a locally sourced toothsome green spelt this would prove to be my second favorite savory of the night.
Plate number four would be the only place where my tasting differed from the six course to my right and one of two places where it would diverge from those to my left (yes, that means the “six course” turned out to be 9 of the 10 I received as part of the ten course – though I will say the couple was celebrating an anniversary and were clearly known to the house.) With the table to the right lingering over the bass and that to my left receiving a whole family style hamachi collar to share, my plate would include Crispy Tempura of Soft-Shelled Crab with House made Cole Slaw, Preserved Lemon, Pickled Peppers, and Squid Ink Anchoiade – a dish I see has subsequently been added to the a la carte menu. With the soft-shell nicely prepared in panko but relatively par for season and the amalgam of slaw, lemon, and peppers tasty but rather benign the high point of this dish for myself was actually the black anchoiade with the potent flavors of anchovies and garlic serving a nice foil to the sweetness of the crab.
Described as “the pasta course,” dish five included the House Made Rye Flour Straccetti paired with a Ragout of Ham, Peekytoe Crab, and Mousseron Mushroom, but in all reality it might as well have been described as “wet noodles with ham puree” because that was truly all you could taste and although it tasted fine, I’d have much preferred something a little more subtle, or perhaps just an order of the rigatoni with chicken confit and chicken liver mousse from the a la carte.
My sixth item of the tasting menu would be a successful venture into the seemingly decreased number of offal courses compared to previous menus and although the couple to my right sent more than half back because they did not enjoy the texture, I personally found the Braised Veal Sweetbreads with Hom Shimeji Mushroom, Bok Choy, Hakurei Turnip, Ramp Kimchee and Almond Butter to be the most successful course of the evening. Delicate, creamy, and approximately the size of a jumbo egg with a nicely crisped exterior the gland itself needs no further description – it was applause worthy. What made this plate so successful from my vantage, however, was the Asian theme imparted by fibrous mushrooms, melting bok choy, and an interesting turnip something like a water chestnut bathed in a broth both sweet and savory, smooth and acidic all at the same time – the best use of the night’s bread service was actually mopping this plate clean.
For my final savory, myself now one course ahead of the table of six who was enjoying another shared course of chicken in place of the sweetbreads, course seven would be Vermont Pork Three Ways with Spice Crusted Rib, Grilled Belly, and Morcilla with Sorrel Coulis, Pea Tendrils, Radish, and Grilled Ramps. Large in portion and more so in flavor with protein plated to the left and vegetables to the right this is one situation where I can say the vegetables save for the tasty crispy ramps were extraneous save for visual contrast and appeal; the star here was invariably the swine and each of the three presentations (literally) brought something different to the plate. Beginning first with the rib – smoky, rich, and fibrous, next the belly – crisp skin and fatty supple flesh, finally the blood sausage – bold, heterogeneous, and full of spice – it is no wonder Maws’ kitchen is decorated entirely in shapes of the pig, he clearly has a great love for it and understands its preparation thoroughly.
Still somewhat perplexed by course six (little did I know the amuses were included actually making the pork course seven) being announced as my “final savory” in a ten course progression, my next dish featured Pink Grapefruit Campari Sorbet and Champagne Foam – a bitter little bite I could have certainly done without, and all the more frustrating when I realized this palate cleanser was actually course eight.
“For your dessert course – Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream Tart with Sea Salt, Smoked Mexican Chocolate Sauce and Bacon Pecan Crust” said my server mere moments on the heels of the sorbet and with that I was offered coffee (declined) and left to enjoy what would actually be a pretty remarkable dessert. Served essentially as a long thin sliver of buttery boozed up ice cream studded with candied pecans atop a savory crust and beneath a ribbon of salty chocolate ganache the tart itself was great but what really put it over the top was a smear and a dollop of chipotle and cinnamon spiced chocolate that added a whole other layer of complexity by bringing the other flavors to an peak on the palate.
For my tenth course of the night I was presented a rather innocuous “Greek Yogurt Foam with Red Beet and Blood Orange Granite” – slightly tangy, a bit earthy, and plenty citrus I certainly preferred it to the sorbet. Along with this course my captain would present to my table for only perhaps the third or fourth time of the evening and when he asked me how everything had went I simply stated “it was alright” and when he asked “just alright?” I inquired as to why the six course and ten course were so similar both in length and composition to which he confirmed my suspicion that the table next to me were “friends of the house.”
With the room still loud but starting to fade as the hour approached 9:30 the check was delivered along with two small macarons described as “Chocolate Almond Tobacco” and although their dry texture was not ideal the flavor was certainly intriguing. Also delivered with the check was a comment card, something I always take the time to fill out whether good or bad but especially in this case as it came with check-boxes a long note from Chef Maws requesting feedback. Of course, since Joseph had also forgotten to pass along word of my desire for a printed menu I had a good fifteen minutes to fill out the card and as such became rather wordy – mostly praise but also noting that while some dishes shined others disappointed, especially in the setting of a “ten course menu” when four courses could have been served as amuses or palate cleansers rather than proper courses.
Having now been up for nearly twenty hours I settled my bill and with menu in hand I made my way to the door where my bags were gathered and within moments I found myself in a cab en route for the South End. Having spent a good portion of the day eating I most certainly was not hungry, but at the same time I also wasn’t terribly satisfied with my visit to Craigie on Main either. Sure some of the courses were good – as a matter of fact, some were excellent – but for $150+ I tend to expect more from a Beard Award winning chef…and when I returned home to Ohio perhaps I found out just what I should have expected and received in the form of an apology and offer from Marjorie Maws stating “…ff course we're upset that you weren't blown away by our food. Here's a possible explanation (but definitely not an excuse.). You came in at a time when there are lots of out of town visitors who are here for one of the many graduations in the area. We learned a few years ago that many of these diners were not as adventurous as our local crowd and so we made the menu a little more "normal" for a couple of weeks. We do, however, still have several "funky" preparations available and our servers are instructed to ask where each party is on the "funk scale." It sounds like that may not have happened in your case and, if that's true, we are terribly sorry. May I offer you a gift certificate for a return visit to Craigie so that you can enjoy our full range of our selections? Again our apologies and we really appreciate your feedback. We can't wait to cook for you again!”
I’ll also note that since that visit the online description detailing the “Ultimate Craigie Experience” has been truncated from ten to eight courses while the sample menu itself still lists the same ten courses I received. While I can't say my first visit to Craigie on Main was my best in Boston all things being equal I'd definitely be willing to give anyplace that classy a second chance and on my next visit to the North East I shall.