Massachusetts embraced a flood of French-Canadian immigrants in the late 19th-century, and in many commonwealth towns, their descendants still prepare grand-mère’s recipe for meat pie every holiday. Gussied-up versions of poutine, the humble Québécois drunk food, have dotted Boston menus for a decade. But a refined take on French-Canadian fare never had its own restaurant here, until the team behind State Park and Mamaleh’s—John Kessen, Rachel Miller Munzer, Alon Munzer, Heather Mojer, Evan Harrison, Tyler Sundet and Rachel Sundet—recently opened Café du Pays.
The cuisine’s ethos combines French technique and love of seasonal sourcing, adds a welter of wild, foraged and cultivated foodstuffs from flinty Northern woods, farms and waters, and leavens it with the thrift and heartiness needed to survive harsh winters. Chef Dan Amighi (ex-Little Big Diner) opens his menu with a wondrous, hard-crusted sourdough with cultured butter ($6) and tres-Français radish slices ($2). Summer pea soup ($8), an elegant take on the poverty cuisine standby, is a limpid broth floating vivid peas, sunchokes, radishes and luscious strips of smoked pork. Crudites ($13) offer a rainbow of raw vegetables—green cauliflower, yellow and ink-black pole beans, pink radishes, pale baby parsnips—with aioli and oily, salty herbes salées to dip them in. Mushroom oreilles de crisse ($5) have the exact crunch, bubbly texture and saltiness of fried pork rinds, but are based on tapioca: the most convincing mock-meat product I’ve ever tasted.
Razor clams ($16) offer a beautiful array of the totally tubular bivalves, dolloped with salmon roe, purple cress, fresh bay leaves and a tiny dice of carrots in a puddle of broth. Tourtière ($12) presents a thinnish, individual-sized version of that famed meat pie, here filled with ground pork and venison in a superbly flaky crust and accompanied by a vivid ketchup with a chrain-like sweetness and horseradishy zip. The de rigueur “Yes, we have Poutine” ($10) tops good, finger-thick fries with squeaky-fresh cheese curds and a wicked gravy (frugally built from various meat trimmings) that’s judiciously applied to dodge the bane of sogginess.
Amighi also ably lands three charcuterie plates: ham ($8), wet-cured in-house and sweetened with maple sugar and a smear of blueberry mustard; a creamy, sumptuous foie gras torchon ($12), which cleverly swaps pickled mushrooms for cornichons to add acid counterweight; and another canonical Québécois dish, creton ($8), a salty, stiff pork pâté striped with bittersweet birch syrup and topped with fried pork rinds. Shareable sides, all big portions and flavors, include a simply dressed, eye-wateringly bitter herb salad ($12), a pilaf ($12) of brown and wild rice flecked with brunoise and possibly a stick of butter, and artichokes ($14) crisply deep-fried and punched up with lemon foie butter.
Big, dark-fleshed proteins get their due in a thick fillet of bluefish ($28) slathered in juniper salt and kale. The oily game fish works better with this assertive accompaniment than the flounder we tried on another visit. Half duck ($40) combines a generous fan of ruby-toned breast slices nestling a thin layer of hot white fat under nicely-crisped skin, plus a deeply-smoked, blackened leg and a late-summer tomato salad, providing tangy contrast. Only deer ($38), a red-deer/elk hybrid, fails to make a lasting impression: Venison slices under a blanket of huckleberries are so tender and mild that one might mistake them for pork tenderloin. Too much of the forest has been farmed out of it.
Desserts include old-timey favorites like the tarte au sucre ($12), a maple-sugar pie dotted with crème fraiche amid a circular smear of roasted elderberry sauce, and pouding chômeur ($12), a kind of hot blueberry-flecked buckwheat pancake in a puddle of maple cream, served in a cast-iron pan and topped with a tableside pour of juniper anglaise. The beverage program features a 38-bottle, heavily French wine list ($30-$176) with lots of fine choices under $60, and a tight selection of French brandies, eaux de vie, cordials and some lovely, little-seen bottlings of Pineau des Charentes ($9-$14 per glass). Sweet-leaning, Canadian-accented specialty cocktails ($10-$14) are served in beautiful glasses; Le Habitant ($12), a whiskey sour variant with maple, lemon and bitters, achieves the nicest balance. Beers ($4-$11, $25 for large format) are mostly Canadian, like the Unibroue Trois Pistoles ($11), a funky, Belgian-style dark ale, and St. Ambroise ($7.50), a light-bodied oatmeal stout.
The two dining areas are like night and day: The rear room features dim, romantic lighting, polished black brick walls, dark wood surfaces and floral wallpaper backing its booth and deco accents in the intimate six-seat bar. The front room, with white walls and abundant plants, feels much sunnier, like the enclosed porch of a French farmhouse. Noise levels are tolerable against a soundtrack of French-language ’60s rock and pop covers. Service feels more polished and formal than at this group’s other restaurants, befitting the swanker setting, menu and prices. There’s an awful lot that feels familiar about the joint—Quebec and New England share more than a long border, after all—but plenty that feels fresh, with all those novel tree-derived flavors. Winter is indeed coming, and Café du Pays shapes up as one of the more beguiling new spots to pass some of the long nights ahead. ◆
Summer pea soup
Mushroom oreilles de crisse
Café du Pays, 233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge (617-314-7297) cafedupays.com; Hours: Tue.-Sun., 4-10 pm; Liquor: Full bar; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Metered street spaces and validated parking in a nearby cinema garage