Despite having taken the Boston dining scene by storm more than 10 years ago, the small plates concept remains a divisive one. Objections range from “I never know how many dishes to order,” to “Seems like a bill-padding scam to me,” to “I hate to share.” Myself, I respect the ancient cuisines from which the tradition springs, much prefer five or 10 tastes to a rote app-entree-dessert progression and have family and friends who are the sharing type. But if you’re going to offer a long menu of short courses, you had better execute consistently. En Boca, a new Harvard Square small-plates restaurant that laps the Mediterranean with accents from Portugal to the Levant to the Maghreb, manages to do exactly that, with occasional flashes of unexpected French refinement.

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Executive chef Benjamin Lacy doubtless honed some of that Gallic flair and love of local sourcing in previous stints at Ten Tables Cambridge and Bondir. Wolf Meadow Farm ricotta ($8) could not be simpler—a fine, tangy sheep’s-milk ricotta sprinkled with teeny wild herbs and served with good grilled Iggy’s bread. There’s some beautiful local foraging reflected in a generous bowl of fire-roasted wild mushrooms ($10), plus a fierce whiff of garlic and savory fresh herbs. (Skip the $8 Burgundy black truffle upgrade, which barely registers.) A blackboard behind the bar lists a few options for charcuterie and cheese, including worthy entrants like Vermont’s Blue Ledge Farm blue ($6), tastily arrayed with marmalades and preserves, pickled red onions, fried almonds, baharat-dusted olives and more good bread.

Slow-roasted beets ($9) get a pretty plating and balance to their sweetness from rainbow radish slices and some eye-watering horseradish-flavored cloumage; this underlying layer of sauce or vegetable puree is a Lacy leitmotif. Familiar blistered shishito peppers ($9) get a nutty, garlicky lift from breadcrumbs tinged with Catalan romesco. Cauliflower ($9) and Brussels sprouts ($9) receive the ubiquitous-for-a-reason treatment of crisp frying plus a fatty accent, respectively strained yogurt (with Indian-inspired spicing) and skin-on pork belly. Poached farm egg ($13) is a dish of gentle comfort, the egg haloed by oily, spicy, minced chorizo, all resting atop a bed of soft, buttery polenta. Grilled oysters ($12) dress perfect local specimens in a dark, umami-rich bagna cauda and top them with little curls of pickled sunchoke: three superb little bites.

Heartier meat- and seafood-centric plates swell to the size of generous conventional appetizers. Baked piquillos ($15), vividly red sweet peppers, get a rich, tender filling of braised beef shank—oxtail on another visit was as delectable—and some good celery-root slaw. Lamb meatballs ($14) are crisp and juicy, sounding another subcontinental echo with Madras-style curry in the turnip puree underneath and a crisp turnip/pepper chutney on top. Wood-grilled octopus ($15) offers one example of Lacy’s pinpoint cooking of cephalopods: The entire tentacle, from its meaty upper portion to its skinny tip, boasts both char and elusive tenderness, a thin chermoula on the plate offering an evocative whiff of North Africa. Another is baby squid a la plancha ($11), which also triangulates perfect tender doneness, pine nuts offering crunchy, sweet contrast to vinegary pickled peppers—like a healthier, more balanced rendition of Rhode Island-style fried calamari.

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A couple of heftier entrees serve as big shareable centerpieces for two or more, like braised Rhode Island lamb neck ($29), a gorgeous hunk of tender and fatty lamb, and a superb version of a roasted half-chicken ($25), which Lacy brines for most of a day and then sous-vides in duck fat to fantastically juicy, flavorful results. With its sides of chunky sunchoke puree, baby arugula and skinny sunchoke pickles, this could also serve as a single-plate meal for the dyed-in-the-wool small-plates hater.

The short dessert list again straddles French classicism and further-eastern Med flavors. A pots de crème ($9) comes topped with preserves, chopped pistachios and crushed nougat, while a fluffy rendition of the Egyptian semolina cake babousa ($9) is rum-glazed and dolloped with sweet chantilly crème. Specialty cocktails aim culinary and tend to land sweet, as in the Brattleberry ($13) of gin, orange and elderflower liqueurs, lemon, blackberries and a fizz of sparkling wine. Wine lovers are better served by a couple dozen by-the-glass options (most in the $8-$13 range, a few fancier ones $16-$35, all kept fresh by an argon-gas system) and more than 40 bottles ($35-$115, most under $60), leaning heavily on France, Italy, Spain and Greece, plus half-a-dozen sherries ($6-$25). Beer and cider geeks get good attention with six drafts and two dozen packaged options ($4-$26) sourced mainly from New England.

The romantically dimly lit 86-seat dining room and spacious 18-seat bar get a little streetlight from the tall front windows, though monotone accents and dark wood throughout soak most of that up, a few eye-catching paintings and objets d’art providing rare splashes of color. Service runs a little young and green but exhibits just enough polish not to undermine the elegant-casual vibe. In a town awash in well-intended but often-pedestrian mezze and tapas, En Boca brings a welcome culinary eclecticism and just enough French refinement to gain a distinctive place in our small-plates firmament.

MC’s Picks                  

-Poached farm egg
-Grilled oysters
-Wood-grilled octopus
-Baby squid a la plancha
-Baked piquillo peppers
-Lamb neck
-Roasted half-chicken

En Boca 8 Holyoke St., Cambridge (857-259-6321) enbocacambridge.com

Hours: Sun.-Wed., 11 am-10 pm, limited menu till midnight; Thu.-Sat., 11 am-11 pm, limited menu till 1 am

Reservations: Yes

Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby garages

Liquor: Full bar

En Boca


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