At their wildly popular Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 restaurants, hospitality grandee Garrett Harker, veteran chef Jeremy Sewall and entrepreneurial oystermen Skip Bennett and Shore Gregory serve New England seafood in a wrapper of hip-looking urban dining rooms, polished service and top-flight beverage programs. At their new Harvard Square restaurant Les Sablons, the team is aiming for a much tonier fine-dining experience that is haute French in inspiration and served with photogenically tweezered precision—all at luxury prices that ICOB and Row fans may find shocking.
Service here starts with great epi de blé baguette and superb goat butter; the latter especially makes it hard to heed Mom’s admonition not to fill up on bread. Hmm: Given the price/portion ratio of some dishes here, maybe have some after all. For instance, seafood cocktail (Alaskan king crab on one visit, Maine lobster on another) is a model of pristine claw meat served with perfect restraint, barely kissed with horseradish and crème fraîche, paired with picturesque slices of fried lotus root, but it’s a bare few bites for, gulp, $24. Beef tartare ($19) earns its keep better with a superb hand-cut texture, the umami uplift of oyster aïoli and gaufrette potato (wicked fancy potato chips).
The indeed-smallish small plates generally dress up one perfect ingredient with subtle, highly Instagrammable adornments, like corn vichyssoise ($14), a velvety cold puree of sweet summer corn with a bare squiggle of tarragon cream, or bluefin tuna crudo ($16), big chunks of ruby fish in a bath of cucumber water and a sprinkle of corn kernels and snap peas. Rye spaghetti ($15) lavishly crowns coils of chewy, nutty pasta with shavings of chanterelle and Parmesan atop a vivid smear of pesto. Crispy potato is like God’s tater tots, the kind you don’t mind topping with caviar and crème fraîche, but again: Three for $19 raises eyebrows. English pea soup ($14) is a shallow bowl of pure, verdant late-springtime flavor, while foie gras ($21) with roasted onion and pretty rhubarb Dijon delivers the creamy, lordly goods.
Entrees may inspire ancient jokes about post-prandial pizza. They’re not tiny, but your dad who deemed steak a safe bet here will still be nonplussed by the size of fork-tender filet mignon ($46), prettily plated with pommes purée in an artful puddle of bordelaise. Bulking it out with Parisian gnocchi, a drab-looking side of chewy dumplings drenched in herbed goat butter, is a good idea, but, ahem, $17. To be fair, most entrees here would feel at home at L’Espalier or Menton. Sewall and his chef de cuisine Brian Rae have crushing skills with fish, as in the gorgeously crusty, skin-on striped bass ($37) done perfectly atop tomatoes, olives and saffron broth, or the dynamite Spanish turbot ($42) over a phenomenal coarse mash of English peas, plus chunks of blue crabmeat and beurre blanc. Rohan duck ($39) is a deftly rendered French classic, a fan of crisp duck-breast slices atop a roasted-cherry sauce with a mild, finely turned panisse alongside. And some sides are transporting, like a tomato gratin ($13) surrounding a mound of clotted cream, a balletic counterpoint of juicy sweetness and creamy tang.
Desserts range from very good to good-lawd-that’s-heavenly. To focus on the latter, get lemon posset ($10), an ancient, pudding-like English dessert that wrangles an astonishing, ineffably creamy texture from only milk, sugar and lemon juice, and Paris-Brest ($10), a head-turning, dreamy confection of choux pastry filled with roasted white-chocolate crème.
By now, you understand this kitchen’s sensibilities: French in spirit, refined, luxury-leaning, painterly. It’s not the way most of us eat anymore, and when we do at these breathtaking prices, it’s likely a special occasion. But Harker, Sewall and Co. make a strong case for justifying their dizzying tabs on a few counts. One, the two up-and-down rooms here are uncommonly cool, shoehorned as they are into the lovely, impossibly narrow old Conductor’s Building. It’s an impressive combination of old-world accoutrements (luxe upholstery, linens, stemware), 19th-century industrial feel (ancient exposed brick, steampunky ironwork) and cheeky modern art (e.g., a Bowie portrait against a field of Play-Doh containers). These rooms also give their patrons uncommonly generous space to breathe (especially in the semicircular booths upstairs) and conversation-friendly ambient-noise levels found only in our swankest culinary palaces. Two, the service is superb even by Harker’s famously hospitality-centric standards: attentive, deep on the menu and wine list, discreetly formal without seeming stuffy or pretentious, invisible when not needed. Three, the cocktail and beer list is by Jackson Cannon, Harker’s superstar beverage program manager, with a bar staff trained to his exacting standards. Four, sommelier Lauren Daddona has assembled a wine list that is broader than it needs to be. We followed her recommendations to spectacular bottles in the $80-$100 range (it’s easy to go way higher), but also found plenty of joy in the $50s and $60s. The result is an ambitious high-wire act that succeeds in delivering top-flight sophistication in food and service without the pomp and starch of the one-percenter joints across the Charles. When it’s time to celebrate a promotion, engagement, round-number birthday or anniversary, Les Sablons is where the cool kids will want to be. ♦
Bluefin tuna crudo
Les Sablons, 2 Bennett St., Cambridge (617-268-6800) lscambridge.com Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5-11 pm, Sun. brunch, 10:30 am-2:30 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private garages Liquor: Full bar