Susan Regis, chef and co-owner of Cambridge’s new Shepard, has been the lynchpin of a string of well-regarded restaurants, most recently UpStairs on the Square. Her partner, René Becker, owns the beloved nearby Hi-Rise Bread Company. Together, they have taken over the old Chez Henri space and focused on building a menu of seasonal New England ingredients with a lot of wood-fire roasting and grilling in a spare 70-seat room. Fans will be unsurprised to find the results of the team-up to be mostly fantastic.
A solid bar program kicks things off smoothly with classics like the pastel-purple Aviation ($11) of gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette and lemon. Becker’s bakery background shows immediately in excellent complimentary sesame-seeded bread served with fine cultured butter on an oblong slate, and toasted, rough-textured Leslie’s seeded rye ($5) dotted with dill flowers and more of that incredible butter. Big rye crackers provide an excellent foundation for a fruity spread of chamomile ricotta ($6) sprinkled with honey, herbs and sumac, and a pretty but inedibly leathery charred grape leaf. Fine Melba toast flanks another terrific spread of smoked bluefish pâté ($8) piquantly counterpointed with tiny pickled, sliced hot peppers. Shishito peppers ($9) get fire-roasted to droopy tenderness and showered with sunny shavings of slightly funky cured egg yolk.
Gorgeous platings are often matched by their flavors, as in tautog crudo ($11), a delectable, underused local species. Translucent slices are arrayed in painterly fashion on slate, streaked with a reduction of slow-roasted watermelon with the color and flavor of sweet sun-dried tomatoes and dotted with charred escarole leaves. Lamb ham ($10) makes a prosciutto-like salume out of lamb, wraps it around cubes of cantaloupe to balance its gamy funk and bedecks it with flower petals: attractive and witty. Basil pici ($16) builds on pretty, pale-green, al dente pasta with sweetly acidic, blistered cherry tomatoes, briny/funky striper bottarga and bitter rapini, achieving a wondrous harmony of flavors in an eye-catching bowl.
Regis and crew show real feeling for vegetables, arranging pristine local produce in delectable but not overwrought treatments. For instance, thin-sliced cucumbers ($7) let the sweet, crisp flavor of the vegetable shine through a light dressing of buttermilk, dill flowers and poppy seeds, while kale ($7) served in a cast-iron skillet perfectly balances accents of garlic and maple and adds leaf stems for textural interest. Larger plates show similar delicacy, as in leeks ($12) fire-charred to melting tenderness and served atop a velvety green romesco and dusty dehydrated tarragon. The wee Fairy Tale eggplant ($6), here preserved, sliced and dressed with a mild harissa, is a bit chewy and salty. Meanwhile, peak-of-summer tomatoes ($14) are a showstopper: big and small, vivid red, yellow and purple, exquisitely complemented by local feta, “heritage” popcorn (which sounds faintly ridiculous but delivers subtle corn kick and welcome crunch) and anise hyssop—simply gorgeous on both plate and palate.
Among larger plates, soupe de poisson ($28) breaks down the canonical Niçoise fisherman’s stew into a plate of perfect littlenecks, some new potatoes, a collar and head of tautog, plenty of herbs and a shallow, scant puddle of thick seafood broth. It’s a valiant attempt at a deconstruction of a classic that doesn’t quite add up. By contrast, the humble bavette steak ($29), most often rendered locally as steak tips, is fantastic. Another beneficiary of skillfully applied wood fire, it’s dressed with a subtle horseradish cream, flanked by crunchy leaves of horseradish, crisp and sweet hakurei turnips and a terrific pavé of new potatoes; it’s about as good as a bistro steak gets.
The excellent desserts include a buckwheat waffle ($9), a chewy, faintly sour pancake made with a pizzelle iron and tented around fine hazelnut gelato, and brown butter cake ($10) with a tremendous meringuey chocolate mousse. Wines by the glass are nicely priced and well-chosen, like the 2014 Château de Roquefort Côtes de Provence rosé ($11), juicy and floral, the 2014 Domaine de Pajot Les Quatre Cépages Côtes de Gascogne ($8), offering emblematic sauvignon blanc notes of citrus and melon, and the 2013 Domaine de Piaugier La Grange de Piaugier Côtes du Rhone Sablet ($11), a spicy grenache/carignan blend with red-fruit depth and a subtle barnyard whiff.
Service is warm, knowledgeable and mostly polished, though the dining room’s initial tag-team approach isn’t always perfectly choreographed, improving once a single server takes command of the table. Removing the wall separating the bar and dining room, adding austere charcoal accents, blond woods and simple, sleek furnishings, and fronting the open kitchen with the roaring wood-fire grill has resulted in an airy, handsome, lively yet comfortable space. In it, Regis and Becker and their talented team are pulling off a bit of alchemy, combining great local ingredients with relatively straightforward, unflashy kitchen technique and routinely achieving sublimity. Put it in Shepard’s unpretentious wrapper, and it’s harder to think of a more winning formula for a long-running Cambridge neighborhood restaurant.
– Tautog crudo
– Basil pici
– Bavette steak
– Brown butter cake
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 pm
Parking: Metered spaces
Liquor: Full bar
Shepard 1 Shepard St., Cambridge (617-714-5295) shepardcooks.com