by Juli Huddleston
Garden at the Cellar
991 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
Type of Food: European inspiration with a local New England twist
Price Range: $ $
Quaint, bright, and friendly; this neighborhood restaurant is located just beyond the bustle of Harvard Square. Local grown herbs sit on the dining tables and decorative shelves. Hard wood floors accent the single, long room that makes up the restaurant. There is a bar to the right, running almost the entire length of room, which sets the tone for evening socializing- with its cozy stool seating and easy accessibility. Tables are placed in organized disarray to the left. The open-air kitchen is visible at the back where the sights and sounds of cooking drift out, giving the place a homey feel.
I heard of Garden at the Cellar through the Boston Localvores website, which highlights the restaurants locally-sourced menu. Being a supporter of local farmers and local fare, I decided to look further into this claim. I visited Garden at the Cellar on a Monday for lunch accompanied by a long-time friend. After lunch at Garden at the Cellar and contacting the chef, Will Gilson, for some further insight, the restaurant’s claim of local sourcing stands true. However, the impact of such designation is up for debate.
The favorite dish of the afternoon was the mini burger appetizer made with local beef and served on homemade Brioche. They were well cooked and accented by a lightly herbed mayonnaise that gave them just enough zing; there was no need for ketchup. The accompanying potatoes were bland, but baked perfectly, with a crunchy shell and a soft center. This was equally true for the rosemary-truffle fries, another favorite. These decadent fries were seasoned with a hardy portion of truffle flakes and not overdone on the rosemary.
The bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese were another excellent small plate starter. My lunch guest described them as the perfect blend of sweet and salty, with “the creamy goat cheese center balancing the crisp of the bacon.” The curried apple hash they were served on was greasy, but tasty. It stained the plate, and everything else it touched, bright yellow.
The tomato-herb soup was well seasoned, although a bit runny. Its consistency was great for dipping the grilled cheese sandwich it came with, however a few chunks would have increases the texture and complexity. The grilled cheese was perfectly toasted with mild, white Vermont cheddar cheese. No fault, but nothing special.
I was very excited to order the duck and fig flatbread with goat cheese. It turned out they had no figs that day and were substituting pear instead. The result was disappointing. The duck was dry, the pear was dull, and there was much too much mozzarella and not enough goat cheese. There was no sauce or spice. It needed the sweet linger of the fig or an herb to add flavor. The flatbread itself was more of a cracker than bread.
Falafel was a surprise to see on the menu. As the only vegetarian sandwich option, this ethnic choice did not fit with the European/New England fusion of the other items on the menu. The restaurant’s spin on this classic did little to improve it. The falafel was paired with pickles, mint, parsley, and “spiced yogurt”, which was Garden at the Cellar’s take on Tzatziki sauce. The pickles distracted from the flavor of the falafel itself, which was mouth watering on its own, robust and not greasy. The sandwich was wrapped in lafa, a type of flatbread, and grilled.
Besides the tomatoes that went into the soup, the only vegetable that showed up in our meal was the arugula that came with the flatbread and falafel sandwich. The few measly springs of greens in the sandwich were not nearly enough to call a portion. Seasonal dishes were also scarce on the lunch menu. For being a local sourcing restaurant, this was disappointing. There were more opportunities for vegetable sides and seasonal dishes on the dinner menu, which may be worth exploring at another occasion.
We had a friendly waitress who was not overly attentive, but still there when we needed her. She had good suggestions and could answer my detailed questions. There were only two other parties at the restaurant on a Monday afternoon, and no one at the bar, which made the efficient, but not hovering, service all the more impressive; I did not feel as though we were being watched or ignored.
The fact that the chef and owner took the time to respond to my questions about the restaurant and its food put a positive spin on the entire experience. This conveyed community and customer awareness as a priority for Garden at the Cellar. From his comments, I could tell that Gilson is passionate about food; how food comes into his restaurant as well as the creative dishes he sends out to his customers. When asked what his favorite vegetable or fruit is to cook with, Gilson responded: “I really like sunchokes. They are pretty under-utilized in New England kitchens. They have a robust, but sweet and nutty flavor about them that gets more complex or more refined and silky depending on how you prepare them.” Gilson works hard to bring the fresh tastes of the season to his customers.
The restaurant’s biggest sellers are the burgers and the beet salad, with 200 pounds of beef and 100 pounds of beets sold a week.
Garden at the Cellar is known to be a local-sourcing restaurant that provides a seasonal menu with fresh food. However, only one item on the menu mentioned where the food in the dish came from. The burgers were labeled as local ground beef, and the website acknowledged Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine as the source. What about the chicken? The duck? The foie gras on their dinner menu? And, most importantly, the produce? I asked Gilson this question and was satisfied with the answer: Garden at the Cellar changes their menu four times a year, in sync with the New England growing season. Small changes are made monthly. Local food suppliers, particularly for produce, are not consistent enough to guarantee that a dish will be made from items from any particular source each week. Therefore, the only distributors printed on the menu are those that are the sole suppliers of that food item. For the current menu this only included local beef from Maine and cheddar cheese from Vermont. Still, the general use of the words local and regional was lacking.
The low volume of vegetables on the menu, then, may be due to few preferred late winter produce and suppliers. However, one would assume that an accomplished chef could be more eclectic with root veggies and early harvest fruits from New England in March. If it were spring or summer, the vegetable offerings on the menu might be more varied and abundant, as the restaurant buys produce in these prime growing seasons directly from local farmers markets. The Potager Farm, which is run by Will Gilson’s father in Groton, MA, is one of Garden at the Cellar’s primary suppliers in spring and summer.
Overall, the food was decent and the atmosphere was comfortable. The portion sizes were perfect- not too much, but they still left my six-foot male eating companion full and satisfied. I would not, however, go out of my way to frequent the restaurant. In terms of local and sustainable food service options, I feel my support could be better served under other branches of the food system. That said, I praise the efforts of Will Gilson to push for a more sustainable food system within Boston. Hopefully someday local cuisine will be the norm at any restaurant.
$ Average entrée is $10, Highest price is <$18
$$ Average entrée is $15, Highest price is <$25
$$$ Average entrée is $20, Highest price is <$30
$$$$ Average entrée is $25, Highest price is <$40
$$$$$ Average entrée is $30, Highest price is whatever you can dream of
NONE: Pack a lunch
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