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.
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.
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.
-Poached farm egg
-Baby squid a la plancha
-Baked piquillo peppers
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
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby garages
Liquor: Full bar