The restaurant business is never easy, but lately Boston appears to be going out of its way to make it harder for independent operators. Would-be chef/owners face a stack of challenges in the city: Too many restaurants chasing too few patrons, punishing rents and liquor license costs, not to mention ubiquitous national chains with bigger marketing and hiring budgets. When The Improper reviews a restaurant in Newton or Waltham, it’s inevitably because some rising talent weighed the cost of doing business in the city and fled for a sweeter deal in the suburbs. We imagine that’s the calculus that Mrs. and Mr. Sargent (general manager Nancy and chef Matt, both formerly of Waltham’s Brewer’s Tap & Table) made when they chose a spot on the Watertown/Belmont line to open Country Mile, their charming new neighborhood joint.
Their menu formula is a familiar one with some twists: seasonal, locally sourced New American with a few globe-trotting fillips, a dozen small plates sized liked generous appetizers and served as they are ready. Two dishes per person and maybe a shared plate of charcuterie, cheese or dessert will suffice most customers. Nothing complicated or surprising, right? Except the kitchen comes roaring out of the blocks with its half-dozen vegetable dishes, each of which features an odd-looking boutique vegetable and an intricate, marvelous balance of flavors (earthy, bitter, tangy, sweet) and textures (crisp, tender, crunchy, creamy). Thus, baby Russian kale ($10) is a salad of tender, glossy purple leaves arrayed with sliced Bosc pear, slender roasted baby yams and maple-glazed red walnuts over creamy celery root puree, given sprightly sweet-tart balance with a dressing of apple cider vinegar and maple syrup. Roasted cauliflower ($13) comes as multicolored florets dotted with pine nuts, grilled radicchio and dried apricot, inventively pulled together by a velvety underlayer of cashew cream spiced like a Northern Indian masala. Google “fioretto” (it’s a weirdly pretty cauliflower cultivar with florets on the end of skinny stalks), and then order grilled fioretti ($14) with escarole, radicchio di Castelfranco (a radicchio/endive hybrid), Honeycrisp apple slices, shreds of smoked trout and roasted pumpkin seeds. There’s not a clunker in this section: They’re all beautiful and sensational.
The half-dozen meat and seafood plates are nearly as consistently strong. Curried mussels ($16) sit in something like a Thai yellow curry with the superb textural accent of crunchy-battered slices of Japanese eggplant, plus a big stalk of half-bitter grilled broccolini and some baby Maine potatoes. Lamb spare ribs ($22) include three bone-in specimens that are lusciously, almost obscenely fatty in a way that recalls the luxuriance of foie gras, arrayed around a bittersweet dice of green apple and the blackish lacinato kale, a swirl of smoked honey adding faint sweetness. Grilled hanger steak ($26), sliced and topped with a garlicky, fiery salsa verde, is draped over massive kernels of stewed posole (hominy), like a steak-frites that went on holiday to Santa Fe. Chicken and ham ($18) cleverly binds a wrapper of crisp, nicely salty prosciutto to the skin of a pounded breast cutlet using a layer of melted Vermont cheddar. It’s a witty update on chicken cordon bleu, brightly spiked with quick-pickled jalapeño slices and resting atop soupy, mild Sea Island peas. Only pan-seared halibut ($26) underwhelms despite the intrigue of squiggly spigarello kale. The fish’s gently flavored flesh, simple sauce of olive oil and Meyer lemon, and especially the side of big, starchy butter beans need much more generous seasoning. A dessert of vegan chocolate bark ($8) bejeweled with pumpkin seeds, dried apricots and currants, and served alongside apple slices and fine Vermont blue cheese, is richly simple and glorious.
Wine director Carol King might remind you of that indispensable retailer who strives to lift you out of your trite-varietals rut toward lesser-known values, which in fact she is—she manages Porter Square Wine & Spirits—and her list reflects that. It leans heavily biodynamic/organic/natural and features very attractive prices: 13 by-the-glass options ($10-$14) and 43 bottles ($30-$138, most under $55). We don’t splurge on grand cru grower Champagne very often, but a non-vintage Demière-Ansiot blanc de blanc brut for $88 was a fiercely sparkling, bracing, honey-toned steal. There’s also a purely beer nerd-oriented list of eight beers ($6-$9) and a short list of specialty cocktails ($12-$14), most modestly reinvented classics like the Hello Daddy, Hello Mom ($14), an Old-Fashioned variant pepped up with Zucca (a mild, rhubarb-based amaro) and quality cherry syrup, though it needs more stirring for dilution and chill.
The room is comfortably noisy despite its many rich hardwood surfaces, centering on a comfy 12-seat bar flanked by 34 dining room seats, while the walls are adorned with vaguely rustic accents (an antique pitchfork, a sculpture of old bedsprings), all benefiting from soft lighting complemented by ambient streetlight through the windows. Service is sweetly informal and attentive, and cannot be blamed for the occasional annoyances of the kitchen’s rapid-fire service, as when too many plates arrive at once. Such hiccups cannot undercut the thought that this modest, quietly sophisticated, gently original restaurant engenders: What a unique, lovely addition to this neighborhood. What a damnable shame that more terrific little indies like it cannot thrive in Boston. ◆
Baby Russian kale
Lamb spare ribs
Grilled hanger steak
Country Mile, 136 Belmont St., Watertown (617-393-1568) countrymilefood.com; Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5-9:30 pm, bar till 11 pm; Reservations: No; Liquor: Full; Parking: Street spaces