The crazy, Dalí-joins-the-circus décor at Upstairs on the Square is initially quite shocking, but in the end it works, and works well. But it’s a shame about everything else. A recent visit was a comedy of both errors and salinity.
Let’s tackle the food first, since it’s probably the most important element in a restaurant’s success or failure…at least to the customer (cost control is more important to the restaurant). An amuse bouche of spring garlic soup with lardons was extremely tasty, but far too hot to be served in a shot glass; it was initially impossible to grasp the glass without burning one’s fingers, and even after some cooling the liquid scalded the tongue. Plus, the long-cut lardons got stuck in the bottom of the glass, and had to be fished out.
Tempura-battered soft shell crab was exquisite over a bed of softened bitter greens, but the whole thing was almost literally swimming in a broth of wu-wei tea and ginger; it was red, crisp, and sweet, and a good counterpoint to the greens, but far, far too much of it was in the bowl. Next were Kobe beef skewers with shichimi pepper, cucumber and miso sauce. The cucumbers were deli-style, thin-sliced and resting in (another) shot glass full of their vinegar. Not really clever, just strange. The miso sauce had the character of stale chickpea purée, and was completely unnecessary given the umami otherwise present on the plate. And the beef? Grossly oversalted. Now, I love salt. A lot. When there’s good salt on the table, I’ve been known to repeatedly eat pinches of it in its natural state. I am an overly healthy salter in the kitchen. But this beef tasted like it had been brined, then marinated in seawater, then rolled in a bowl of salt crystals. All the exquisite beef flavor was obliterated.
My third course was lamb (excellent in both taste and texture, though also a bit oversalted) with a fabulous mixture of heirloom beans and favas, and a custard…the menu suggests parmesan, but instead I think I received the horseradish panna cotta from another dish…which was fine with me, as it was a good counterpoint to the lamb, but probably wouldn’t be OK with most diners.
Elsewhere on the table, pan-roasted Giannone chicken with asparagus and morels was fabulous…if, again, a bit oversalted. And the cheese course was served with a beautifully-designed plate of accompaniments that worked with both the cheese and the décor.
The wine list was a particular focus of this restaurant when it first opened. It hasn’t gotten much shorter, but what it has gotten is less and less to my taste. That’s no dig against the list, as not all wine directors will share my palate, and it’s still a fine and inventively-chosen selection, but it does cause me some personal angst, because the number of wines on the list that I enjoy is dwindling. The focus is on New World wines and the Old World wines that taste like them (though a few alternatives exist). There are also enough mistakes on the list to cause worry; a Deiss 1998 Schoenenbourg ($99) is listed under the riesling section, but it’s actually the multi-variety blend. That’s just one example.
(There were mistakes on the menu, too: “Napolean” rather than “Napoleon”…for the pastry…was one that stuck out.)
The biggest comedy, however, came from the service. I don’t wish to place all the blame our waiter, who was generally pleasant and helpful, but rather to criticize the institution as a whole. With only four or five tables occupied on a slow Thursday night, things should have moved like clockwork. Alas…
1) We began our evening downstairs, with drinks at the Monday Club Bar (owned by the same people), but couldn’t move our bill and our Champagne upstairs. That’s bad integration, because I’m certain that we weren’t the first to wish to do so, but in the end it wasn’t such a big deal.
2) Four tasting menus were available, with defined choices. Two were omnivorous, two vegetarian. Since it was slow, we asked if we could assemble a five-course tasting from the available choices on both menus (it doesn’t hurt to ask) and the waiter said he’d inquire of the kitchen. A few moments later, he had an answer: “no problem.” So we spent a few minutes making our selections, but when the waiter returned, he had new information. “You can’t order any of the dishes with a ‘7’” (from the seven-course menu) “next to them.” Well, OK, but why couldn’t we have been given that information earlier? His excuse? “They’ll throw off the kitchen’s timing.” With three-quarters of the restaurant empty? And with one of two the now-unavailable courses on all four menus being the cheese course? How does that throw off the kitchen’s delicate timing? Anyway, we were forced to send him away again while we scanned the regular menu.
3) Cheese courses were available, according to the menu, in three-, five-, or seven-option versions. At the beginning of a meal, our waiter informed us that only the three- and five-cheese plates were available. However, by the time we got to the cheese course, only four cheeses were available. I understand that inventory control is a difficult thing given the usual restaurant margins, but this was particularly horrible.
4) Among the cheeses presented as available were a “bleu de Basque from Vermont” (how does that work, exactly? we asked for the producer, but it wasn’t forthcoming) and a “Montgomery Cheddar.” But the “cheddar” that arrived wasn’t a Cheddar at all (or even a cheddar), but some sort of sheep’s milk cheese. At that stage of the meal, we were uninterested in contesting its identity due to the piling on of problems, so we just ate it. It wasn’t bad at all. It just wasn’t cheddar.
5) I ordered a bottle of the aforementioned Deiss as we ordered our food (the waiter required me to point to it on the list). A few minutes later, just before the arrival of the first course, our waiter informed me that the Deiss wasn’t chilled because their freezer was broken. I was a little confused by this, because a restaurant should know that the best way to chill a wine isn’t the freezer, but a bucket of ice water (more water than ice), and asked if I had an alternative selection. I did. A few minutes later, he returned to inform me that the Deiss was available after all, it was “chilling,” and that it was almost OK anyway because it had been at cellar temperature. Now, several things occur here. First, if the wine was really at “cellar temperature,” it would have been cool enough to serve when first removed from said cellar…it’d need a bucket to maintain that temperature, sure, but right there is an indication that “cellar temperature” means something different here than it does elsewhere. Second, I’ve been in the wine room (twice), and unless they’ve cranked up the cooling unit a lot, the wines are only kept a bit cooler than room temperature, not at true cellar temperature (which is normally considered to be 55 F). So the inevitable conclusion is either that the wine was way too warm when pulled from wherever it rested (and in fact, it arrived at the table already in a bucket of ice water, but only just barely at what I’d call a proper cellar temperature, which does mean that it was a lot warmer a few minutes earlier), or that it couldn’t be located and an excuse was concocted. Plus, it didn’t arrive until our first courses were already on the table, which I always find irritating.
6) I ordered a second bottle of wine (a Brigaldara 2000 Amarone), and again had to point to it on the list. I asked for it to be brought with my second course (the Kobe beef), assuming that I’d make the switch then, and that my dining companions would continue drinking the Deiss until they had red-accepting food in front of them. When my first course was cleared, I asked for the bottle, and was told by our waiter that it was “being decanted now.” This is a massive error in wine service; wines should be decanted at the table, not elsewhere, or as an alternative the wine should be presented at the table, then removed to a visible side table for decanting. Mine was being poured…I don’t know, somewhere else in the restaurant. Wine room? Downstairs bar? Kitchen? Men’s bathroom? There was no way to know. About five minutes later, our second courses were on the table, and I again inquired after the wine. “It’s arriving momentarily.” Which it did…as the empty bottle was (finally) presented to me and the full decanter was placed at its side.
7) With the first wine, the waiter poured my taste, then poured around the table…but forgot to finish pouring my portion. The second time, he poured my taste, but when I told him only I was drinking it at that stage, he still didn’t pour me more than the brief tasting splash. I immediately grabbed the decanter and finished the pour, but I don’t think he got the hint.
8) We were actually told, just before the arrival of the cheese courses, that the kitchen was “closing up for the night, putting things away.” This was before anyone had considered ordering dessert (which we ended up skipping, but still). And this was as my lamb dish arrived at the table. Who assembled my plate, the busboy?
Some readers will ask, reading all this, “why didn’t you complain?” Two reasons. First, we’ve no real interest in returning, so anything they could do for us would be unwanted. Second, I’d once complained about something at another restaurant owned by the same team, and had received a much less than friendly response.
All in all, it was an only slightly above average meal with enough service and functional flaws that I would not return. It’s surprising, too, because I continue to enjoy the more casual Monday Club. Maybe the problem is that the upstairs “Soirée Room” overreaches, and something more sedate and low-key is all that’s within the restaurant’s grasp. But I don’t think that’s the case, because when Upstairs on the Square first opened, it had Amanda Lydon – James Beard winner and local rising star – and Susan Regis (a more established local chef of note) in the kitchen, and long time star-wine guy Lorenzo Savona helming the list. Since then, there’s been a lot of turnover in the kitchen and the cellar. Which makes me think – and this is just a suspicion – that the problem isn’t the capabilities of the kitchen, but rather the aims of the owners. Their previous venture, Upstairs at the Pudding, was a perennial underachiever as well.
Worst of all, Harvard Square’s inability to sustain great restaurants continues. There’s a lot of decent but uninspiring food, but the only truly excellent restaurant is located on a quiet residential street, a half-dozen blocks away, and as removed from the busy Harvard Square scene as a place can be.
(Based on a 6/06 visit. See also: the Monday Club Bar.)
Copyright © Thor Iverson