A Healthy Appetite is a restaurant review column for the fun-loving, nutrition-minded gormand.
by Caroline Carney
The Specials Board at East by Northeast
East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge Street Cambridge, MA 02139
Type of Food: Chinese
Price Range: $
East by Northeast, a newish Modern Chinese restaurant in Inman Square, borrows its name from the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest. The name also references the combination of “Eastern” cooking and the use of “Northeast,” local ingredients. This cleverness extends to the food at this small, neighborhood eatery. Reviews have compared East by Northeast owner and head chef, Philip Tang, to Momofuku’s David Chang- fine company to be in. David Chang is the darling of the New York restaurant scene, revered for his ability to create uniquely, delicious flavors and textures at fairly reasonable prices. I know from first hand experience that Chang makes a mean roasted duck, outrageously light and salty pork buns, and a pistachio cake so decadent it has no right to exist. So, when I learned Boston may have its very own version of David Chang, I immediately made a reservation.
The Scene: I love the neighborhood feel of Inman Square. Many Boston restaurants are bent on being huge, boisterous, and catering to all types of diners. This can be fun at first, but can grate on the nerves over time. East by Northeast, or ExNe, is a welcome hiatus from that type of bustle. People here just want a tasty meal in a space that allows conversation to flow.
The restaurant has about nine tables with a diminutive bar to which only one person could belly up. The walls are a deep, warm red, and the décor is clean and sparse. From our table, we had a direct view into the kitchen, making us feel like we were part of the action. I loved seeing the passion and fervor exhibited in the kitchen. It gave me a visceral sense of the chef and his style of cooking.
I could tell most of the dinner crowd was regulars. A table full of six women, chatting excitedly in Italian sat across from us. They were stylishly dressed, in that Italian way: tall, black boots, cashmere shawls, and perfectly sculpted hair. These women seemed to know exactly what to order for the table. A young couple sat quietly in the center of the room, out for a casual date night. A few groups of friends, young 20-somethings, all sounded familiar with the menu, uttering phrases like, “we have to get the pork dumplings again.” Such a crowd indicates that ExNe has already built a following.
Menu: The waitress recommended we order three to four plates per person, like an Asian tapas bar. This is an ideal menu for budget-constrained students. The appetizers, salads, and dumplings range from about $4 to $8 and the noodles will run you $10 with the enticing option to add a poached egg for $2.
Fortunately for those vegetarians out there, ExNe does not follow in the footsteps of David Chang, who notoriously removed all vegetarian options from his NY menu and added pork to just about every dish. In fact, our Philip Tang has a way with vegetables and the salads may have been the highlight of my meal. Keep in mind, I went to this restaurant on the heels of some serious holiday indulgence. So, although I avoided the meat-centric dishes, I think it would be worthwhile to head back to the restaurant when in the mood for some pork belly.
The kitchen sent us an amuse bouche of creamy butternut squash soup with a delightful surprise of shitake mushrooms at the bottom of the tiny white teacup. I love when restaurants do that, because it makes you feel special…even when you see that every table gets one!
Butternut Squash Soup and Asian Pear Salad
We started with a special: the kabocha squash cake. It was served warm with a few thick crispy wedges of squash and was perfectly fried with a sweet, salty flavor. I hope this dish remains a special for months to come. Maitake mushrooms added a creamy texture to each bite, while the sautéed escarole was a welcome hit of green.
I am a longtime fan of shiso, a Japanese mint, so when it appears on a menu I always have to sample the dish. At East by Northeast, the asian pear salad with beets, silken tofu and spicy cashews included a nice sprinkling of shiso. The salad was so nuanced that I found myself trying to decipher the flavor combinations: soy sauce, ginger, scallion, red chili? I asked the waitress what ingredients were in the dressing. She mumbled something about soy sauce and peanut oil, but I knew she was safeguarding restaurant secrets.
There were a couple plates that did not hit the mark. One was the kohlrabi and carrot salad, in which the carrots overpowered the delicate, raw kohlrabi. The chicken and smoked pollock shaomai were dense, doughy, and tasted like they had been sitting around for a couple of days. The smoked pollock was an odd, unsuccessful flavor experiment.
Philip Tang’s homemade noodles received attention recently in The Improper Bostonian, but I could not understand the positive press. His thick cut noodles with seafood, smoked tofu in a miso broth was, admittedly a bowl of robust flavors. But, the noodles were too thick and gummy; they really gave my jaw a workout. We had a hard time determining what was noodle and what was squid – not a good sign. The noodles reminded me of my failed attempt to make whole-wheat linguine by hand. The hand-rolled short rice noodles with shiitakes, celery root, chestnuts and greens were somewhat better. The celery root was wonderfully sweet and the shiitakes were perfectly simmered in the broth. Still, the noodles need work.
The cocktail list suffers from having well written, enticing copy, and a mixologist who cannot quite live up to it. The Hendrick’s gin mixed with house made cilantro lime soda was on the sweet side and needed more limy tartness. I can never resist a cocktail that includes the words “grapefruit” and “vodka.” But ExNe’s grapefruit-infused vodka with jasmine tea was a disappointing interpretation of the Greyhound. The wine list is also limited. We ordered the Orvieto, one of two options, which was non-descript, but worked with the meal.
The Bottom Line: I recommend this restaurant for a few reasons: I like to support young chefs trying to make it on their own and who are committed to sourcing local ingredients; Philip Tang is experimenting with new flavor combinations and I believe his food will only get better; lastly—it’s cheap! Go with a couple of friends so you can try a bunch of the dishes, sip some crisp white wine, and leave satisfied. Don’t expect a gourmet meal – this place is no Momofuku – but the chef may be on to something and it is worth keeping an eye on.
$ 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
NOT Pack a lunch
Beer or Wine List:
Caroline Carney is a second year Nutrition Communication student and is also working towards her Dietetic Internship. She likes to go running along the Charles with friends and to cook elaborate meals.