The rise of the gastropub is surely one of the most significant developments in American culinaria over the past several years. Across different regions of the country, there seems to be an appreciation for elevated comfort food and pub fare—I’ve stayed in Chicago, Maine, North Carolina, and Kansas recently, and each of these towns supports establishments that qualify for this culinary category. I personally don’t care much for these restaurants since I find they skew too heavily towards comfort food. More interesting to me is what I perceive as a merging between fine dining and the gastropub that has occurred in recent years. Specifically, it seems as though many American restaurants are borrowing elements of casual/comfort food as a means of distancing themselves from traditional fine dining, instead choosing to elevate ingredients like pork belly and bone marrow. These restaurants are too upscale for actual gastropubs, but not as committed to luxury as fine dining. This synthesis between gastropub and fine dining seems to have opened the door for an “American fine dining” that is more relaxed, fun, and accessible than the stuffy stereotype of fine dining that Americans might traditionally hold.
Craigie On Main is the most representative example I’ve found for this new model of high-end American dining. The restaurant began as a bistro (at least in title) and now inhabits a large property in Cambridge. Chef-Owner Tony Maws won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast for 2010, and his fare reflects many tropes of fine dining/gastropub fare, including: abundant use of offal, a preference for esoteric proteins, and a predilection for in-your-face flavors. The restaurant’s cuisine is perhaps best explained through comparing it with L’Espalier; where the preparations and plating technique at L’Espalier are delicate and pristine, Maws emphasizes bolder flavors and the dishes tend to look a bit messy.
My sentiments are borne out of my recent meal at Craigie On Main, a three-way dinner I enjoyed with my parents. The restaurant was a good fit for a family meal since my parents tend to resist more traditional fine dining eateries; we were all excited for the meal and finalized our early evening reservation about a month in advance.
Craigie On Main is located at the corner of Main Street in Cambridge; it certainly doesn’t have the big city feel of L’Espalier, and one could certainly situate it on the high end of the neighborhood restaurant category. This neighborhood vibe is enhanced by the fact that tables are close together. One irritating aspect of the table setting is that there are white paper tablecloths. This makes it easy to clear the table setting in preparation for the next seating, yet it also looks cheap and suggests that they place great importance on turning tables—hardly becoming in a restaurant of its price point. In sum, I would argue that the interior borrows from the interior design of the neighborhood restaurant to an excessive degree.
There are two different menu structures: the well-known “Craigie Experience” tasting menus and the three-course prix fixe. The menu clearly shows the influence of gastropub cuisine, with basically every (edible) part of the pig featured in some form or another. I knew ahead of time that I wanted to order the whole-roasted chicken for two as a main dish and so we all ordered off the prix fixe rather than the tasting. I chose the grilled octopus a la plancha for my starter; my dad chose the house-made buckwheat and coffee pasta and my mother ordered the ragout of early summer vegetables.
The amuse bouche was house-cured mackerel; it must have contained a shellfish stock, since my dad and I were served beef heart pastrami instead. We were all satisfied with our opening bites, which were all representative of the restaurant’s commitment to proteins that one would normally see on gastropub menus.
The bread service is sourced from a local bakery; there were a few different varieties, all quite good.
Our appetizers were all generously portioned. The grilled octopus never leaves the menu, although Maws does change up the supporting ingredients; for this meal, it was served with bulghar wheat, Spanish olives and a chorizo puree. The picture below doesn’t do justice to this terrific dish. The octopus really benefitted from the char of the grill and the meat itself was perfectly moist. A very memorable dish.
The pasta tasted more dramatic than it appeared; the coffee buckwheat mafalda was served with lamb sausage ragout, forest mushrooms, and English peas. This was a dish where there were more ingredients than apparent; there was definitely an element of disguise at work, as the brown appearance gave little indication of the strong flavor combination at work. I think we can see from this dish that Chef Maws emphasizes explosive flavors.
My mom’s vegetable composition was easily the best-looking of the opening courses. The vegetables were supplemented by clams and Serrano ham, which added some depth and made this the most balanced dish of the evening.
A salient aspect of the prix fixe at Craigie On Main is that one can have either a grand-scale meal or a more moderately-portioned experience. My mom’s meal was moderately portioned and so she had a very different experience from my dad and I, who went all-out and feasted on the whole chicken for two. Our runner brought the bird out for a photograph before the kitchen plated it for our consumption.
As with many of the earlier courses, the finished product didn’t look very striking. The biggest negative was the hyperbolic garnishing of micro greens; I can appreciate garnishing when it’s tastefully done, but when the garnishes obscure the primary ingredients I think they cross the line. Craigie On Main is hardly alone in this regard; Primo, for example does the same thing. I think garnishes serve as a litmus test for where a restaurant stands on the fine dining spectrum; if there are lots of pea shoots or micro greens, the restaurant probably belongs in the gastropub-fine dining category. In this regard, one of the chief qualifications for inclusion in the upper echelons of fine dining is the ability to tastefully add the finishing touches to the plating composition.
Chef Maws has drawn a lot of attention for his whole chicken and while I don’t care for how the chicken was presented, it tasted amazing. Maws is a very contemporary chef, but his chicken really shows his ability to execute a classic chicken preparation. The accompaniments were appropriate and included parsnip tsimmes, nameko mushrooms, crispy rapini, and tamarind jus. The tamarind sauce wasn’t really necessary with all of the natural juice from the bird, but it was appropriate for the summer season. There was way too much food and an extra plate contained the areas of the bird that couldn’t fit on our plates.
The salmon was sized like an ordinary main dish; it was sourced from California and served with peekytoe crab, curried spinach, and a green split pea puree. My mom enjoyed the fish very much and the preparation made better use of color than most of the other dishes.
Dessert choices included five different pastry offerings and a cheese course. None of them sounded too interesting, but I took our server’s recommendation and ordered the cornmeal blondie. My mom selected the dark chocolate marquis, while my dad went with the spearmint affogato.
The blondie was a pretty big disappointment; it was served with noyau ice cream, corn, scotch butterscotch, and apricot. Everything was okay conceptually but the cake was overcooked and the ice cream had melted more than I would have liked.
My mom’s dessert was much better. The dark chocolate cake was paired with beet and white chocolate swirl ice cream, pumpernickel crumb, and beet coulis. The sweet flavor of the beet contrasted nicely with the bitter chocolate, and this dessert was also more successful in utilizing different textures.
The spearmint affogato is always on the dessert menu. The ‘coffee float’ contains two scoops of spearmint ice cream, two strips of Taza coffee chocolate and a chicory rum sauce. This was a major hit with my dad, who enjoys hot/cold texture contrasts.
Our last treats were tasty nut brittle cookies.
Judging by the packed weekday dining room, it’s pretty clear that Craigie On Main means a lot to Boston and I can certainly see why. As a whole, I think Boston doesn’t really have a clear identity; Maine specializes in seafood and farm-to-table cuisine and Chicago is known for its modernist cuisine, yet Boston really just contains a hodgepodge of restaurants that don’t really combine for any coherence. In this context, Chef Maws has a distinctive niche; he is conceptually his own agent and offers dishes that one simply won’t find elsewhere. This last attribute is especially important—so many restaurants just serve the same dishes one can find anywhere else, and even though Craigie On Main borrows from culinary trends, it’s to their credit that they do not actually copy other restaurants. I could also easily see Bostonians dining at Craigie On Main and feeling as though they are experiencing cuisine that is more explosive than the higher-priced fare at L’Espalier, Menton, or o ya.
Yet, I still feel as though there is an inelegance that pervades Craigie On Main specifically and the gastropub/fine dining genre more generally. The style is built on bold flavors, many of which are creatively paired, but the imprecise, sometimes sloppy plating aesthetic made me feel at times as though I were dining at a casual restaurant. I think Craigie On Main is rewarding because it demonstrates that elements of gastropub fare can productively integrate within a fine dining context, but I also feel the restaurant takes the unnecessary step of borrowing not only the ingredients but also how they are presented in their more traditional casual context. Craigie On Main is not a casual restaurant—the ingredient combinations are more unusual and the technique more polished—but I’m eager to see whether it eventually sharpens its rough edges to form a more fine dining experience.