Evidence of Boston’s deep-rooted history is everywhere you look, from actual landmarks like Faneuil Hall to kitschier simulacra like downtown tour guides in tricorn hats. But that doesn’t extend to our dining scene: Visitors hoping for a taste of Colonial cuisine might hit the touristy, allegedly historical Durgin-Park, only to find more 20th-century dishes than 18th-century ones. Loyal Nine, a new East Cambridge restaurant named for an obscure group of revolutionary conspirators, isn’t going for faithful re-enactment, but draws on concepts and ingredients from early New England cookery to very original and frequently lovely effect.
Executive chef Marc Sheehan starts by drawing on sustainable seafood like Scituate periwinkles ($8) steamed in hard cider, tiny sea snails that you dig out of their shells with toothpicks. It’s messy work, but worth it to sample an underused, delectable local species. Grilled surf clam ($12), chopped, chilled and served in its shell with pickled garlic scapes and melting sauteed leeks, is a novel, delicious preparation of a big offshore clam that’s usually buried in clam strips or chowder. Matelote ($17), squid braised to tenderness in red wine, is fantastic in color and texture, but even so is outshone by a big, fluffy dumpling filled with rich bone marrow. Slices of butterfish ($9) are soused in liquor, served over piquant horseradish dressing and topped with thin radish slices, all resting atop a round of wondrous molasses-sweetened brown bread. Sheehan’s phenomenal pastry chef, Adam Ross, provides a gorgeous foundation to many dishes here. (He also does the terrific breads and pastries sold in the adjacent all-day cafe.)
Another dish that benefits from great bread is nettles ($9), an emerald puree of young leaves on toasted sourdough topped with prosciutto-like slices of smoked duck breast, pickled green tomatoes and toasted ground pumpkin seeds. In a clever nod to both shore-food shacks and his Portuguese neighbors, Sheehan does a fried clam and pig ear roll ($14) with a relish of bitter greens. A plate of asparagus ($11) is grilled, chilled, dotted with crunchy almonds and dressed in cultured cream, simple and fine. Bok choy ($16) looks lovely, dotted with a littleneck or two, green garlic, of-the-moment fiddleheads and caviar, but is inedibly underwashed, loaded with sand. No such mistake haunts the sallet ($6), a pretty presentation of soft lettuces rolled and tied with a sprig of basil, perfectly dressed with hard-cider vinaigrette and hiding pockets of good aged goat cheese.
Aroostook savory supper ($14) layers a small crock with potato and onion slices crowned with a soft-poached egg and a translucent square of salt pork; it’s creamy, mild and satisfying in a way that exceeds the sum of its parts—an ancient Down East comfort food. Pondemnast ($16) is a comforting porridge of farro and winter wheat topped with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, boned and confited turkey neck (tasting like the best bits of a brined Thanksgiving bird) and a soft-poached egg yolk, all edged with a vivid mustard-green sauce. You can’t Google “pondemnast” to useful effect, but you’ll want to remember it. Among larger plates, Cornish cross chicken ($22) serves rich confit thighs and skin-on breast prepared to moist crispness on the plancha, accompanied by pureed celery and excellent croutons of white flint cornbread. Lobster ($18) braised in hickory nuts and mead is a half-lobster in the shell sans claws, mostly tail meat, like an updated baked stuffed lobster.
Excellent desserts include a hard-cider syllabub ($7), reminiscent of a stiff panna cotta with a layer of wild-apple preserves topped with crisped milk meringue. Sourdough chocolate brewis ($13) feeds two with a gorgeous centerpiece of nearly unsweetened chocolate bread pudding and accompaniments of cocoa nibs, smoked toffee sauce, spicy pepita brittle, yeast streusel, honeycomb candy and chocolate syrup, a fabulous combination of savory and sweet. Among the many terrific fourth-wave coffee preparations, tableside siphon coffee ($9), which also serves two, boasts the most dramatic presentation.
Bar manager Bryn Tattan’s cocktail program features terrific originals like the Flying Nun ($11) of whiskey, pickled black walnut and lemon with an atomized spritz of Scotch on top, like a smoky, slightly briny whiskey sour. Rums, brandies and eaux de vie are also featured, with some nice-priced options like Laubaude Bas-Armagnac ($12). Wines include sprightly, food-friendly offerings like the 2011 Bernard Vallette Née Bulleuse Gamay ($13), a fruity, off-dry, deep-pink sparkler from Beaujolais.
The handsome, spare room features nearly 100 seats at long tables, a comfortable bar and a dining bar at the open kitchen; concrete floors and hard wood surfaces contribute to a nearly uncomfortable din at peak periods. An airy 30-seat patio, where the kitchen grows produce and herbs, sits by a rarely used railroad spur. Service is casually attentive and informal, ever ready to demystify the menu’s obscurer terms, though first-timers should ask for help in sorting out the variable-sized smaller plates to order appropriately.
Ultimately, Sheehan and his talented crew pull off a delicate bit of sleight-of-hand: taking historical recipes that could seem dull if reproduced too faithfully, melding them cleverly with techniques and flavors unknown in Colonial times, and tapping underused local ingredients to create something novel and fascinating. Loyal Nine has moved way beyond cod cakes and baked beans to forge something welcome and new: Call it New Colonial cuisine.
-Aroostook savory supper
-Cornish cross chicken
-Sourdough chocolate brewis
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10 pm (bar till midnight), Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 pm (bar till 1 am), Sun., 4-9 pm (bar till midnight)
Parking: Metered spaces
Liquor: Full bar
Loyal Nine 660 Cambridge St., Cambridge (617-945-2576) loyalninecambridge.com