It may be hard to believe in 2016, but new restaurants once opened in Boston with little fanfare. Nowadays, restaurant debuts are usually preceded by a months-long stream of social-media hype: every dish lovingly Instagrammed, key hires trumpeted on Facebook and Twitter, the buildout painstakingly detailed in blog posts. No such flurry of self-promotion preceded Parsnip Restaurant & Lounge, which quietly debuted in Harvard Square a couple of months ago in the former home of fine-dining institution UpStairs on the Square. Its quaint virtues extend well beyond its modest approach to marketing.
Gone is UpStairs’ bubblegum-pink Soiree Room, replaced by a sleek upstairs lounge. Parsnip’s tastefully modern dining room—high-ceilinged and austerely rendered in shades of beige and brown—occupies the former home of the Monday Club on the first floor. Executive chef Peter Quinion’s menu is similarly low-key, with (gasp!) a conventional appetizer/entree/dessert structure, written in flat, minimalist descriptions that provide few hints of the sophistication to come. Roasted cauliflower ($14) with apple and golden raisins doesn’t sound intriguing, but its accompanying brûlée, a rectangle of layers of thin-sliced cauliflower with a caramelized top, is a showstopper. Similar inventiveness characterizes seared scallops ($17) with thin-sliced fennel, whose surprising star is a crisp-coated, creamy cylinder of scallop boudin blanc. A roulade of quail and hazelnuts ($16) topped by a fried sage leaf is lovely and delicate by itself, but the dish sings with its side of al dente farro risotto and a concentrated pan sauce. A salad of fennel and watercress with cranberry vinaigrette ($14) seems ordinary until one discovers its hidden pockets of supremely creamy and mild Bayley Hazen blue cheese.
Similarly fine French technique distinguishes most entrees, with thoughtful details elevating them into sublimity. Noisettes of lamb ($38), tender medium-rare loin slices wrapped with a layer of crisply browned fat and stuffed with garlic and rosemary, are flanked by a cylinder of dauphinoise potato, roasted baby turnips and kale. Cardamom-poached monkfish ($32) doesn’t reflect much of the advertised spice, but its two perfectly cooked fillets are wonderfully counterpointed with a slab of crisp sesame filo and sharp flavors of Swiss chard and orange. Duck ($34) amplifies simple, rosy slices of skin-on breast with bitter roasted endive, sweet orange segments, fiercely acerbic black olives and another intense pan sauce. Potato and artichoke terrine ($24) is a beautiful and rich-tasting work of vegetable charcuterie that gains textural contrast from braised lentils du puy and bite from sherry vinegar. Cornish hen ($34) displays more fine feeling for game-bird roasting, here skillfully balanced by the starchy sweetness of butter-poached celeriac rounds and a bracing charred-lemon pistou.
Desserts by pastry chef Courtney Staiano also create a huge gap between blasé menu descriptions and refinement on the plate, artfully rendered in futuristic-looking geometric solids. A thin rectangle of dark chocolate brownie ($11), topped by three dollops of milk chocolate mousse and a crowning rectangle of tuille, is flanked by a teardrop of popcorn ice cream and a hemisphere of lime gel. A big cylinder of gingerbread sticky toffee pudding ($11) is paired with a skinnier cylinder of mascarpone mousse and edged by slices of candied citrus. Her work is oddly pretty, witty and delectable: not to be missed.
The accompanying wine program focuses primarily on French and Californian wines with occasional stop-offs in Italy, Chile and Australia, with 18 wines by the glass ($10-$18) and a bottle list where it’s not hard to spend $100-$200 a pop. We managed to uncover bargains like the 2012 Mas Cal Demoura ($58), a round red blend of syrah, mourvèdre and grenache from Languedoc, and the 2007 Paul Janin Seduction Moulin-à-Vent ($48), a fruity, light-bodied gamay from Beaujolais. The beer list ($6-$19) features eight small-producer bottles and one cider.
Up a couple flights of stairs, the warmly inviting Parsnip Lounge has the trappings of an upscale speakeasy, with plenty of lounge seating around two fireplaces and complex-looking specialty cocktails served in antique glassware. It also features a short menu of tony bar snacks like good marinated olives ($4) and fried baby artichokes ($10) with lemon aioli. But the Snowfall on Mt. Fuji ($12) strays into pumpkin-spice latte territory with its mix of cognac, pumpkin syrup and allspice dram, while the Tiki-ish Ron Ward ($12) clobbers its drier sherry/scotch base with cloying syrups of macadamia orgeat and grenadine. A traditional up daiquiri ($12) arrives underchilled, overly acidic and improperly garnished. With a little work on consistent execution and more balanced cocktail formulations, this bar could become a very attractive hideaway in the Square.
Nevertheless, with its lively but tolerable noise levels and smooth, cosseting service, Parsnip ultimately succeeds as the kind of pricey, elegant, old-fashioned restaurant that seems tailor-made for the Harvard University crowd: well-heeled returning alums, undergraduates spoiled by visiting parents and faculty celebrating special occasions. In the quietness of its introduction and the blandness of its menu prose, it is also a testament to the power of that old, seemingly bygone business mantra: underpromise and overdeliver.
-Quail and hazelnut roulade
-Potato and artichoke terrine
-Sticky toffee pudding
Parsnip Restaurant & Lounge 91 Winthrop St., Cambridge (617-714-3206) parsniprestaurant.com
Hours: Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 pm, Lounge, Tue.-Sat., 5 pm-midnight
Parking: Metered street spaces, validated parking at three nearby garages
Liquor: Full bar