Most Boston food nerds know our near-neighbor Waltham as worth the short trip, with a dining smorgasbord that includes Indian, Guatemalan, Cuban, Taiwanese, Mexican, deli and even an East African spot. But restaurant-rich Waltham had room for another casual, moderately priced place that is as much a bar as a restaurant, but still takes its food seriously. Such is the new Red Bird, whose chef/owner, Daniel Stokes, comes from a longtime Boston purveyor of the style, the South End’s Franklin Cafe and the Franklin Southie.
The bar immediately impresses with original cocktails like the Lost Sailor ($10): Old Monk rum, amaretto and lime. It’s topped with the slightly passe molecular touch of coconut foam, but stir that into the drink and you’re in delicious 1930s-vintage Tiki cocktail territory. The In Cahoots ($10) is another winner, mixing Uncle Val’s botanical gin, rhubarb cordial, yellow Chartreuse, Maraschino and lime into a fine gloss on the Last Word. The tightly curated beer list—eight drafts and 18 bottles ($5-$14)—focuses on small, mostly local producers, as in a bottle of Brooklyn Oktoberfest ($5), a full-bodied Märzen with a beautiful coppery color. Somerville’s own Bantam Wunderkind on tap ($7) pours as pale and crystalline as Champagne and avoids the oversweetness of many hard ciders with a pleasing dry tartness.
The very affordable wine list boasts 20 wines by the glass ($8-$14), all available as bottles ($36-$54), plus five “select” bottles ($65-$85). It includes food-friendly whites like a 2013 Henri Bourgeois sauvignon blanc ($10 / $42) from Sancerre, with its crisp accents of lemon and peach, and the 2012 Später-Veit riesling feinherb ($10) from Mosel, with its faintly off-dry whiffs of apple and grapefruit (though all whites are served a little too warm). Reds are similarly interesting, inexpensive and great with food, like the brambly, peppery 2012 Breca Garnacha de Fuego ($12 / $48) from Catalonia, and the 2012 Château de Flaugergues syrah ($10 / $42) from Languedoc, with its chewy flavors of cherry and sweet spices.
Bar snacks include a Scotch egg ($5) encased in Italian sausage and deep-fried in panko crumbs (quick to disappear) and a soft pretzel ($5) with mustard sauce (a bit overbaked). Carnitas tamale ($10) is better, its slow-braised pork shoulder in masa dough complemented beautifully by a complex pumpkin mole and cheddar, with a hunk of grill-charred lime to squeeze over it. Stokes’ gifts are clearest when he’s working the French idiom. For instance, he elevates French onion soup ($8) beyond cliche with an intense beef broth, meltingly caramelized onions and just the right layer of stretchy Gruyère. A salad of mixed greens ($8) with apple and English cheddar is perfectly underdressed with chardonnay vinaigrette; bits of almond brittle provide sweet crunch. Pan-roasted chicken breast ($23) shows real technique, managing the rare achievement of moist breast meat with brownly crisped skin, classically arrayed with rapini, new potatoes and cipollini onions in a superb sherry-mustard pan jus.
An appetizer of medium-weight housemade gnocchi ($12) is a just-right Italian secondo portion with rich adornments of braised veal cheek, wild mushrooms and a sweetish Madeira jus. Larger pasta portions are similarly hearty and deep-flavored, as in rustici ($20), gemelli-like twists mixed with pancetta, arugula, a lot of excellent duck confit and a well-calibrated blast of garlic, with cranberry beans providing a lovely creamy texture. Pork loin schnitzel ($26) is well-treated with very light breading; the terrific accompanying bacon-braised cabbage, tender handmade spätzle and good gravy make it fantastic cool-weather eating. Stokes can do southern, too: His buttermilk fried oysters ($10) benefit from skillful deep-frying with panko, and the underlying creamed spinach is a delightful, original accompaniment. Blackened catfish ($21) shows restraint with its spicy coating, its thin filet draped over spectacular creamy grits layered with barely cooked collard greens and bits of tart lime flesh: a superb rendition of a once-iconic dish that rarely gets such careful treatment. Desserts delicately meld complementary flavors in not-too-fussy presentations, as in caramelized pineapple ($11) with mango-ginger chutney and vanilla ice cream, nicely punched up with rosy Brazilian peppercorns.
The 68-seat room is an attractive makeover of the old Tuscan Grill space, mixing black subway tile, brown marble bartop, patterned upholstery in shades of cream and sage, Edison bulb chandeliers, high ceilings, exposed rafters and whitewashed brick—modern and urban, cool but relaxed. Service is friendly and a bit looser than one finds in Boston, but the occasional flub in pacing or accuracy is made easier to swallow by pleasant prices. From its perch on busy Moody Street, Red Bird ultimately takes flight as the kind of neighborhood place every neighborhood needs more of: a good, versatile bar paired with a serious kitchen, offering everyday prices in a handsome, comfy package—a useful American reinvention of the European bistro.
-Rustici with duck confit
-Pan-roasted chicken breast
Hours: Sun., Tue.-Thu., 5-11 pm; Fri.-Sat., 5 pm-midnight
Parking: Street and nearby public lots
Liquor: Full license
Red Bird 361 Moody St., Waltham (781-891-5486) redbirdwaltham.com