How to construct a very fashionable bistro around a very unfashionable
8 Holyoke Street, (Harvard Square), Cambridge; 497-5300
Open Mon - Sat, 11:30 - 3, dinner 5:30 - 10:30
Beer and wine
AE, MC, Visa
by Robert Nadeau
One must admire chef Raymond Ost for dedicating his new restaurant to
the cuisine of Alsace. It would be hard to find a more unfashionable menu.
Every kind of French food is out of style right now, with the possible
exception of Provençal cooking, and Alsace is about as far from the
Mediterranean as you can get. Its food has been lampooned by Parisian visitors
for centuries. That's not so say that Alsatian food isn't good, in its Teutonic
way, but it isn't fashionably light and it isn't fashionably spicy. With
onions, sauerkraut, smoked meats, fish balls, and cream sauces, Alsatian food
can be hearty bistro cooking. But Sandrine's is a bistro mostly in name; few
bistros have such beautifully arranged platters, or such prices.
Chef Ost has created the most elegant bistro imaginable, and the most
exquisitely subtle Alsatian food. Observing the difficulties of the preceding
restaurant in its space, 8 Holyoke, where sometimes every dish was unfamiliar
and highly flavored, Ost has also tucked a bit of Franco-American comfort food
onto the menu, such as an excellent clam chowder ($4 for a cup, $5 bowl).
However, his signature dish, for which he has installed a special wood-fired
oven, is an Alsatian flammekueche (I've also seen it written "flammen
kuechen"),which turns out to be pizza. Well, very thin-crust pizza, with a
topping that leans heavily on onions and chunks of fatty smoked bacon. If you
think of the most onion-rich bite of the best bialy you ever had, that's
something of the idea of the flammekueche.
The evening flammekueche is an oval flatbread, served on a plywood peel and
cut into eight hand-sized slices. It could be a group appetizer. The straight
onion version ($8) is the juiciest, with mushroom ($8, still with onions and
bacon) a little less intense, and smoked chicken ($7) strictly for the
bacon-shy among us.
The breadbasket is quite inviting, and soups are also good, both the chowder
and a soup of the day ($3, $4), which was roasted red pepper. I also enjoyed a
pea soup, loaded with fried onions, as part of an Alsatian lunch special of pea
soup, flammekueche, and apple tart ($15).
An evening appetizer, apple-smoked salmon ($10), was exquisite fish served
with wildly oversalted potato galettes (latkes to you, Mac), as well as plenty
of sour cream, capers, and tendrils of green fennel. Generally, the composed
dishes at Sandrine's weren't oversalty, but diners did note unusual thirst
later on. This isn't unusual in French cooking, and contributes to the "French
paradox" of relative heart health amid a lot of saturated fats and dubbed Jerry
All three of the entrees I tried at various meals were well salted, and to
generally tasteful effect. A rack of lamb ($25) was three exquisite loin chops,
done rare as ordered, with a rich, smoky side order of chopped cabbage, and --
the bistro touch -- oven-fried wedges of red potato. Here the salt was in the
savory sauce. Same story with a luncheon plate of the day, veal scallopine
($14). Nothing Alsatian about this one except the salty brown sauce. The veal
was highly tenderized and beautifully arranged into a disk atop mashed potatoes
studded with diced vegetables. For vertical emphasis, there were fried potato
shreds heaped up like Lyle Lovett's hair -- a fancy, hotel-restaurant
presentation of a dish with hearty, bistro flavors.
Coq au vin riesling ($16) is fully Alsatian. I couldn't taste the spicy white
wine that is the basis of this dish, but there was an excellent chicken flavor
in the creamy sauce -- and with buttered noodles and a few mushrooms, all this
lacked was vegetables.
The only letdowns at Sandrine's were perfunctory dishes like a grilled-chicken
sandwich ($9) -- dry and tasteless, limp french fries -- and a small caesar
salad ($8) with grilled chicken breast and a dull dressing.
The wine list is expensive but choice, and there is also a list of beers,
including Alsace's own Fischer ($6.25), a winey-tasting brew. For an
appropriate wine, you could do well with a pinot blanc from Lorentz ($5.50 a
glass; $21 bottle), which has the typical Alsatian dry elegance. Fruity
California wines also go with this food, as we found with a glass of Hahn
chardonnay ($6), almost as spicy as an Alsatian riesling.
Desserts were all outstanding. As a group, they tended to be small and
prettily arranged, again in the style of the hotel dining room rather than the
bistro. A poached pear croustillant ($5.50) was a crispy fruit poached with
complementary spices, mounted on fabulously crunchy pastry. But the most
impressive dessert might be a chocolate-almond tart ($4) in which the chocolate
is a soufflé-like filling in a milder pudding cake, all on a pool of
yellow coffee-flavored crème anglaise, and topped with whipped cream.
The setting has been subtly changed from that of 8 Holyoke without doing
violence to a very pretty room. The front entrance has been redone in art
nouveau metal like that of several famous Paris bistros. The interior has cream
walls, with red and teal accents, but almost no framed art -- quite a departure
from the classic Paris bistros there.
Service is exceptionally good without formality. The restaurant does needs a
more distinctive sound than the Gipsy Kings, Kenny G, and Stevie Nicks, and a
problem for the longer term is posed by the placement of the wood-fired oven in
the dining room and a second open kitchen in the back. Although the sound is
under control, the light is not, and both cooking stations send glaring light
horizontally at eye level. Both open cooking stations are well ventilated,
which creates an inrushing cold draft despite the double-doored entry. More
pleasantly, I noted a wonderful smell of grilling onions well down the street
on a damp night.
In all, Sandrine's Bistro is wonderfully conceived and executed. I hope it
starts a revival of French restaurants on a strictly provincial basis, as there
are at least 10 more French regional cuisines of importance unrepresented in
greater Boston. And now, with Sandrine's joining Rialto, Henrietta's Table,
and Casablanca, Harvard Square can add a reputation for serious restaurants to
its other attractions.