Just so you’re clear about who’s on first, this week the review is of the downstairs part of UpStairs on the Square, which is in the space that used to be the upstairs part of Grendel’s Den, which is still downstairs from UpStairs on the Square. The menu and chef are different in the upstairs and the downstairs parts of UpStairs on the Square, which is still a full flight of stairs up from the sidewalk of Harvard Square. But this is the downstairs part, which perhaps should be called DownStairs at UpStairs on the Square, since it is in what used to be Grendel’s attic, but now UpStairs on the Square’s bar and informal dining room are there, with the fancy dining room upstairs.
Well, you know, they had to move UpStairs at the Pudding, which did sometimes serve pudding, even though it was supposed to be upstairs from it at all times. The old location was actually in a space upstairs from the Hasty Pudding Club, but it served hasty pudding only occasionally, under the name of polenta. Now it’s on top of Grendel’s Den, and not exactly on top of the Square the way it used to be on top of the Hasting Pudding Club, but maybe on the Square in the British sense, or really just off the Square, behind the little park and across Winthrop Street from the House of Blues.
Well, we ate in " The Veranda Room " of " The Monday Club Bar, " which is open every day — so it should probably have been called the Saturday Club Bar when we ate there on a Saturday night, but it was so packed with people going up and down that management could hardly find time to rename the bar every night. The reason we were in the Bar, eating the somewhat simpler menu cooked by Susan Regis (formerly the chef at Biba, which is also on two floors and getting renamed these days), as opposed to upstairs in the " Soirée Room " eating the more elaborate menu cooked by Amanda Lydon (formerly at Metro, which has now been renamed Giuseppe’s), is that the upstairs room at UpStairs on the Square always seems to be either full or reserved for private parties. So it seemed like a good tactical move to review the rather excellent food downstairs so the crowds would move down (relatively down, but still of course relatively up from where you come in), and we could sneak up later.
What’s on first?
Bread, only one kind. But it’s a good kind, with a dense, tasty crumb and salted butter. The most remarkable appetizer we tried was a special Tuscan pizza ($9), with a crust thin as a tuile cookie — about one-16th of an inch — but intensely flavored with cheese, and garnished with sweet bits of tomato.
I also liked the salad of crisp oxtail, caramelized parsnip, and winter chicories ($13) for the distinctive beefy flavor of the oxtail shreds, the particular spicy flavor of fried parsnip strips, and the excellent greens with a balsamic dressing. But I would probably not seek out the salad of warm endive with poached egg ($12), which is exactly that, garnished with delicious chunks of bacon and round croutons. Maybe for brunch. Likewise, " lettuces vinaigrette " ($9) are very nice and nicely dressed, but a lot of money for a plain salad.
The appetizer course is probably where you should get your vegetables, however, as entrées here run to protein and starch with minimal veggies. Some spinach in the stuffing of a rabbit leg flamed in Vin Santo ($21) is about as green as it gets, but this is an outstanding entrée, a savory little roast with a hint of sweetness from the Italian dessert wine, accompanied by a nice creamy " whole milk risotto " with pine nuts and roasted baby-artichoke pieces to set it off. I also like the grilled swordfish ($23) for its flaky but moist and flavorful meat, and for the " bread salsa " underneath. For bread salsa, think of crumbs soaked in lemon juice with some olives cut in.
Shrimp scampi with garlic and tomato ($16) is five plump shrimp, not overdone, but otherwise unremarkable on unremarkable pasta. A prime rib-eye steak ($26) is remarkably good beef, done to order, with sweet roast fingerling-potato slices, but the menu does not even offer side vegetables.
The wine list runs from light to full-bodied, mostly Italian and French, with some bottles from all over. By the glass, the list is shorter, although UpStairs follows Troquet in offering two-ounce tastes as well. In the chaos of ordering I didn’t get all the details on our wines, but the current sauvignon blanc ($7.50) is a classic of the variety, with grassy and floral aromas and a clean, dry finish. The aglianico from Tenuta le Querce ($9.50) is very soft for this ancient grape of Southern Italy, but a 2000 primitivo ($10) has an elegant, almost minty nose, more like a fine Bordeaux than its genetic brother, California zinfandel. Coffee and decaf ($2.50) are somewhat weak, but the tea ($5) is served correctly in a china pot, and my Nilgiri (a region in Southern India) " frost " was a brilliant cup of tea.
My favorite dessert is the simplest, butterscotch pudding ($7), set off with an almond sandwich cookie. It’s good to remember that there are other flavors as satisfying as chocolate. I also like the gingerbread ($8), and the pudding-like " apple almond crumble " ($8), both with rich vanilla-bean ice cream. The weaker — but not truly weak — link is chocolate-banana pot pie ($8), actually a custard cup of flavors that tend to cancel each other out.
Service, despite the Saturday-night crowd, was quite good. The room is decorated in an extreme and bizarre fashion, as if Monet and Matisse had repainted the Stork Club under the drunken direction of Klimt. There is a lot of gold leaf and gold paint, magenta walls in the veranda room (which has a zebra-striped rug), a fake fireplace, many fanciful chandeliers, painted patterns on the windows and doors, and red-velvet chairs. Maybe it’s revenge of the ’60s. It’s so crowded at the staircase that it is quite difficult to get into the room, even with a reservation. It’s so packed and loud that it is sometimes difficult to focus on the menu or the food. I think the relatively short and stable menu is an excellent decision, allowing the staff to concentrate on crowd control.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com