Cafe ArtScience, a new restaurant situated amidst a cluster of gleaming new office buildings near Kendall Square, wears its intellect on its sleeve. Not just a restaurant, it’s also a bar, art gallery, auditorium and “concept shop”: the brainchild of Harvard science professor David Edwards, whose novel innovations include the WikiPearl, an edible, washable “skin” for serving ice-cream-like foods. The room features a chilly, retro-futurist design that recalls the space-station interiors in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its bar is run by Todd Maul, whose use of chem-lab gadgets like a rotational evaporator to produce original cocktails won him a rabid following in his prior gig at Clio. Against this backdrop, one might expect chef Patrick Campbell (ex-No. 9 Park) to regale us with foams and spherified foods a la Ferran Adrià, or perhaps Grant Achatz’s pillows of nutmeg air—modernist cuisine for brainiacs and food nerds.
Certainly the bar menu’s WikiPearl ($8) offers some sci-fi weirdness, recalling an oversized yellow grape both in appearance and in the texture of its artificial rind, flanked by aerated brioche and filled with savory foie gras ice cream. Like most dishes here, its accompaniments are artfully arranged with tweezer-assisted precision—you will be forgiven for wanting to take pictures—but the expected intensity of fatty liver is regrettably muted. Less visually impressive, Cherriette radishes ($9) register more forcefully with an inside-out variation on French breakfast radishes, filled with herb-flavored butter and salt, mildly goosed with a sprinkling of caviar. Marinated raw oysters ($3.75 each) are precisely dotted with a teensy dice of apple, one miniscule cube of truffle and a perilla leaf: pristine and unimpeachable. Beef carpaccio ($21) arranges microtome-thin slices of meltingly tender raw beef in a pinwheel adorned with chunks of lobster, matchsticks of black truffle and stiff blobs of XO sauce- flavored foam to lovely, delicate effect.
Warm sunchokes ($12) are likewise picture-pretty, a helix of grilled disks of sunchoke and leaves of flower sprouts, greens and oddly delicious curls of translucent-yellow cured egg yolk. The beauty of an artichoke soup ($16) is less in its presentation than its butterfat-rich, velouté-like smoothness and the spiky salt accent of a plump white-anchovy fillet. Tortellini ($18) have an exquisite delicacy in their wonton-like pasta wrappers and filling of house-made ricotta and braised greens, but one wishes for a meatier, more substantial underpinning than the wan Parmesan consommé in which they float.
Vegetable “marrow” ($17) is a witty idea—and a sign the chef respects his vegetarian customers—braising the stiff stalks on which Brussels sprouts grow and halving them lengthwise so their flesh can be scooped out like marrow from a beef bone. It’s sauced and given velvety protein heft with an egg yolk emulsion, then topped with big, wafer-thin potato chips in another food-magazine-worthy presentation. Carnivores may gravitate toward beef cheek ($19), a gnarly, underused off-cut that delivers superbly rich flavor without appearing too fatty. Some Noma-like bedecking with twiggy-looking greens, a foundation of big slices of fried cauliflower and punchy cubes of pickled butternut squash complete an otherworldly-looking dish in an eating-contest portion. Lamb duet ($29) features two nicely contrasting cuts: lean loin and gamy belly, again arrayed with painterly precision over pistachio pesto, speckled leaves of chicory and wonderfully chewy, nutty farro couscous.
Desserts keep up the arty, photogenic standards of many entrees, as in a cherrywood Old Fashioned ($13), which cleverly deconstructs the flavors of the classic cocktail via Maraschino-flavored financier cake, bourbon-flavored gelee, burnt-orange meringue and Angostura lace. Gâteau d’anniversaire ($13), a snowball of sweet-corn olive-oil cake enrobed in chocolate, is elegantly paired with an ovoid of cashew ice cream and dollops of fruity sabayon.
At the long bar, one can engage Mr. Maul or any of his well-trained lieutenants in an earnest discussion of how fractional distillation highlights specific elements of certain cordials. Or you could just sample a few of them, marveling at the rich nuance added by the smoked cocoa nibs that infuse the sweet vermouth in the house’s signature Negroni ($12), or the crystalline purity of a gimlet ($12) made with clarified lime juice. The French-leaning, 56-deep wine list runs a little dear (with about half in the $90-$210 range), but features more than a dozen under-$50 bargains, plus 17 by-the-glass options (mostly $9-$14.)
Service in the dining room is somewhat self-serious, literate on the complexities of the menu and a bit more polished than is typical for Cambridge, as perhaps should be expected at these prices. The overlit, white-on-white decor is somewhat softened by plushly upholstered green chairs and banquettes. (But don’t let them seat your party at a banquette end: The accompanying dime-sized tables are too small for comfort.) In the end, Cafe ArtScience seems more a place to talk about futuristic ideas than to see them embodied on the plate. It’s like an MIT geek’s rendering of No. 9 Park: beautifully plated food drawing mostly on well-executed but conventional French and Italian technique, served in a less-than-gorgeous room bolstered by an extraordinary cocktail program, drawing the kind of well-heeled older patrons and expense-account types who can bear its steep tariff. It may not be rocket science—more like finely wrought, aesthetically driven artisanry—but it is very, very good.
– Marinated Moon Shoal oyster
– Beef carpaccio
– Warm sunchokes
– Braised beef cheek
– Duet of Colorado lamb
Hours: Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5-10 pm, bar till midnight
Parking: Street, validation for nearby garage
Liquor: Full license
Cafe ArtScience 650 East Kendall St., Cambridge (857-999-2193) cafeartscience.com