After you’ve been dining out in Boston for a few years, you may notice that certain locations seem haunted by the specters of previous tenants. When a beloved restaurant closes, it’s sometimes hard to warm to its successor: Memories of great meals of yore can cast a pall over the new enterprise. That notion must have crossed the minds of chef/owner Greg Reeves and GM/co-owner Mark Young when they opened Mediterranean newcomer Viale in the former home of the long-running Rendezvous in Central Square. They needn’t have feared. A couple of months in, Viale already feels like a very comfy fit for its cosmopolitan neighborhood, with the kitchen and bar turning out terrific food and drink like it’s been there for a decade.
Bar manager Patrick Gaggiano sets the tone with some serious cocktail craft, his specialty list full of witty glosses on century-old drinks. The Further Moore ($12) updates the margarita with mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon and the light-bodied Italian bitter Cardamaro, plus a bit of Jabby Brau for fizz. The Negroni gets a makeover in the Eldridge ($11), varied with dry and sweet vermouths and the slightly sweeter Amaro Montenegro. The Tommy Fitz ($12) gives the Ramos Fizz a novel tweak by subbing lavender for orange blossom in its mix of Old Tom gin, lime and the creamy foam of egg white.
Small plates lean toward potent proteins like a special of fried smelts ($11), a late entrant in the Appetizer of the Year sweepstakes. The three fat, mature, barely breaded specimens—six inches with their heads off—are tender enough to eat whole (tail included), and despite the presence of good aioli require no more than a squeeze of lemon: eminently simple and fresh, just about perfect. A dozen small bay scallops ($18), pan-roasted beautifully brown, encircle celery-root puree topped with shaved apple. Plump harissa shrimp ($13) are a delightful idea, adding North African spice and chili heat to pan-seared crunch, gorgeously contrasted with sweet/sour kumquat relish and caramelized parsnips. A plate of antipasti ($17) features insistently hot soppressata, extraordinary corned beef tongue and the mild comfort of white bean puree. Crispy veal sweetbreads ($13) register almost as rich and refined as foie gras despite a rustic underpinning of lentils, chestnuts and apple butter.
Pastas, especially in half portions, serve as fabulous mid-courses, as in the baked paccheri ($13 half, $21 whole), which look like big, flattish rigatoni and are sauced with a stunning ragù of long-simmered lamb and caramelized fennel, topped with thick shavings of salty, grainy, Parmesan-like grana. Saffron fettuccine ($15 half, $24 whole) is lighter, with thick, flat pasta ribbons and goodly chunks of lobster, squid, chili and rapini leaves in a bright tomato sauce—Fra Diavolo by way of Valencia.
Entrees centered on pristine cuts of meat and seafood show similarly fine execution, often boasting a welcome hint of wood-fire smoke and benefiting from classic pan sauces. Grilled Giannone chicken ($23) is a good example: a crisp-skinned Statler breast and thigh simply accompanied by more fire-kissed Brussels sprouts, grilled carrots and an excellent lemon jus. Steelhead trout ($24) is a rare example of farmed fish that is as flavorful as wild-caught, a gorgeous skin-on fillet resting on really fine mushroom risotto, crowned with grilled rapini and touched with balsamic brown butter. Wood grilling gives the skin on a duck breast ($27) good char and crispness without rendering out too much fat or cooking the flesh past pink; it rests on a fascinating mix of textures in chestnut puree and fried quinoa dotted with honey-glazed turnips. Calotte steak ($21) takes a prized, rarely seen, very tender cut of beef (rib-eye cap) and handles it with almost backyard simplicity, long marinating it in oil, garlic, rosemary and bay before giving it the black-and-blue treatment: fire-charred but otherwise quite rare, served with thick slices of wine-braised onions and creamy polenta. It’s a brilliant bargain of a steak.
The tight, affordable wine list, with 45 bottles ($32-$84, most under $50) and a dozen by the glass ($9-$13), offers creditable accompaniments. We paired the salmon-like heft of the trout with the crisp minerality of a 2011 Amizade godello ($10 glass, $40 bottle), a nice-priced Galician white, and the buttery beefiness of the calotte with a 2010 Chateau Teynac ($84), an inky, velvety cabernet/merlot blend that evokes more glorious Bordeaux reds without requiring a second mortgage.
Some welcome holdovers remain. The space, while lightened up in its surfaces, is still airy and lively without being overloud; the wide bar is built more for diners than drinkers. Likewise, service reflects professional polish paired with the friendly informality that seems to characterize every good indie on this side of the Charles. Having gotten out of the blocks quickly to a very smooth start, Viale appears to have cracked the code on how to exorcise the ghost of your predecessor and win over its crestfallen regulars: Live up to its legacy by wrapping exceptional cooking and bartending in a cozy neighborhood feel. Steve Johnson would doubtless be proud.
-Crispy veal sweetbreads
Hours: Kitchen, Sun.-Wed., 5-10 pm; Thu.-Sat., 5-11 pm; Bar, daily, 5 pm-1 am
Parking: Street and nearby public lots and garages
Liquor: Full license
Viale 502 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (617-576-1900) vialecambridge.com