En Boca: A Welcome Addition to Harvard Square

By Caroline Gentile ’17

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Logo from En Boca Website

As of late, the food scene in Harvard Square has been bleak.  With the onset of construction and subsequent mass exodus of restaurants, there have been significantly fewer options to choose from.  Add into the mix that HUDS is on strike, and the options further dwindle.  Thankfully, as of Thursday, October 6th, there is a new restaurant in the square: En Boca.  

Originally in the building that used to be Sandrine’s, En Boca was purchased by restaurant developers Bill Goodwin and Peter Sarmanian, who are also behind two well-known Irish pubs in Boston, in March of 2015.  Unlike their other restaurants, En Boca is far from an Irish pub.  Goodwin’s goal in creating En Boca was to serve “creative, farm-to-table food with a Mediterranean influence” in an ambiance that is “classic with a modern feel,:  

Crimson Crave co-President, Richa Chaturvedi ‘18, another friend, and I decided to check it out. Upon walking into the restaurant, we were struck by how beautifully decorated it is.  We immediately felt transported from the grind of the Harvard Bubble, despite being a stone’s throw from the River Houses. We sat by the large window overlooking Holyoke Street, which was truly a treat, even with the construction across the street.  

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Menu from En Boca Website

 

En Boca’s menu mostly consists of small plates; our server recommended we order three or four plates per person.  “It’s all about the sharing experience,” Goodwin explained to me over the phone, before I even set foot in the restaurant.  With this in mind, my companions and I ordered seven small plates, and one of their larger, yet still shareable, dishes. 

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At En Boca, everything comes out to the table as soon as it is ready.  Before we knew it, our table was adorned with several small plates.  The first thing we sampled were the patatas bravas, which were paired with aioli, tomato, and sweet pepper. The potatoes were cooked perfectly; the skin was crispy, but the potato itself was tender. To me, the highlight of the dish were the sauces, though.  The sweet pepper sauce and creamy aioli not only complemented each other, but also the saltiness of the potatoes. Overall, this dish was delicious and simple.  I imagine it will be a popular menu item as time goes on!

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Next up were the crispy brussel sprouts.  It seems as though the chefs at En Boca have realized the truth about vegetables, particularly brussel sprouts: they are much, much tastier when paired with bacon. The brussel sprouts themselves were beautifully browned and lived up to their description as crispy, but I stand by my assertion the bacon was the star of the show.  Of all the small plates, my dining companions and I agreed that this was one of the best.

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One of our fellow diners would argue that the best dish was the chicken liver pâté.  In fact, she refused to share it because she liked it so much, and claimed it was some of the best pâté she has ever had!

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Another standout dish was the local halloumi cheese. For anyone who has never tried halloumi, ordering it at En Boca is the perfect opportunity.  The small plate gives you just a taste of this delicious, salty cheese along with notes of hazelnut. After your first bite, you’ll wish this dish came with more than just three pieces.

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The charred cauliflower, while not quite a standout, was still quite delicious. Lightly fried, the cauliflower itself was not particularly flavorful, but the accompanying sultanas and labneh, which is basically a creamy mediterranean aioli, really made the dish.  In fact, the labneh also paired extremely well with the falafel.  Without dipping it in the labneh, we found that the falafel was too dense and dry, but it was elevated to new levels once we realized this unexpected yet harmonious combination.

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Of all the dishes, the baked farm egg with chorizo dressing and polenta was our least favorite. Though it sounded good on paper, this dish lacked the texture and flavor that the other dishes so beautifully capitulated. The egg was well-cooked (complete with plenty of yolk porn), but blended in too much with the polenta, resulting in a mushy texture and bland flavor. The chorizo was more salty than it was flavorful, and did nothing to salvage the dish.  However, I liked the idea of a poached egg on the menu, and hope that the chefs will find a better way to serve it.

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Our final savory course was the half roasted chicken with a sunchoke reduction.  It seems as though the chefs had saved the best for last.  After all, there are few things better than flavorful, juicy chicken covered in crunchy, briny skin. The sunchoke reduction amplified the chicken’s flavor perfectly. Though we were already pretty full by the time we got our final course, the chicken was one of the best dishes we had, and we made sure to make room. However, since this dish was advertised as one to share, we think that the presentation could have better reflected the sharing aspect.  The chicken was served on the bone.  In order to share it, we had to cut into it with our own utensils, which, if you were not dining with close friends or family, could get awkward. Given how delicious it is, leaving people to their own devices to cut the chicken could create a hunger games-esque situation.  If this chicken were sliced before it were served, then it would probably be more socially acceptable to eat in a group!

In terms of drinks, En Boca is technically a wine bar, and boasts an extensive wine list, including plenty of fine wines by the glass.  However, only one member of our group was over 21, and she does not like wine. Thankfully, En Boca offers many other options, including cocktails, beers, and ciders.  She decided on the strawberry peach fizz cocktail. After her first sip, she decided it was both too sweet and too strong; the overwhelmingly saccharine aftertaste did not mask the taste of alcohol.    Upon noticing that our friend was not drinking her drink, however, our server offered to get her another one that she might prefer.  

This is just one example of the outstanding service at En Boca. While aspects of the menu are still a work in progress, one thing that En Boca has mastered is its service.  Our server, Isabella, was polite, knowledgeable, and attentive. She truly made our dining experience as enjoyable as possible.

 

 

As for dessert, chef Bryan Jacobs, who used to be the private chef for both George Bush and the Anheuser-Busch family, is still experimenting with the menu.  He served us a palate-cleansing dessert as well as an Egyptian cake.  The palate-cleanser consisted of a quince sorbet with tahini shortbread, hazelnut and mint oils, and chantilly.  While on paper, this combination may sound strange, it was one of the most unique desserts we had ever sampled; light, refreshing, sweet, and tangy.

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The egyptian cake, made with semolina, and run, had a wonderfully crumbly texture without being dry.  To achieve this texture while still maintaining the flavors of the cake, chef Jacobs used a brown butter reduction as his base, instead of the tried-and-true method of creaming butter and sugar together.  Paired with the the airy chantilly, made using an oxygen gun,  this dessert was also light, and the perfect amount of sweet.  Though at this point in the meal, we had sampled at least nine different dishes, we were not completely stuffed to the point of feeling like we needed to lay still for hours.  To achieve desserts that are both decadent and light is quite a feat, and chef Jacobs certainly accomplished it.

Two hours and $103 later (a reasonable price for such a high-quality dinner for three people), we left En Boca, stomachs full of delicious food and a desire to come back soon.  While some of the small plates were not quite perfect, the chicken and the desserts were more than enough to keep us coming back for more.  Before En Boca officially opened its doors, Goodwin acknowledged his excitement about opening and  “correcting our mistakes as we go.” With its outstanding service and talent in the kitchen, En Boca has a great deal of potential, and we can’t wait to see how it evolves in the coming months.

 

Location: 8 Holyoke Street, Cambridge, MA

Reservations: OpenTable

Standout dishes: Half-Roasted Chicken, Crispy Brussel Sprouts, Patatas Bravas

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Food: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

 

A Review of the Harvard Square Tasting Tour

by Christine Legros ’17

From the moment they place the pan-seared, bread-and-sesame crusted slices of tuna in front of us, the fish visibly coated in a crunchy crust but still raw and juicy in the center, I cannot help but congratulate myself on choosing a vegetarian friend to accompany me on this culinary tour of Harvard square. The tuna, whose portion my friend graciously transfers onto my plate, is so soft that the pink fibers of flesh seem to melt away under the slightest pressure of fork or tongue. It is served over a rice pancake, a lightly spicy pureed carrot swirl and little punctuations of “salsa verde.” In Grafton Street Pub & Grill, a restaurant that prides itself on its quality ingredients, this dish is an ode to New England’s fall. It seems to imitate the hues of the leaves that flutter right outside the locale’s entrance.

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This is our first stop in what soon proves to be a fast-paced, taste-bud-exalting, all-senses-stimulating tasting tour, sponsored by Trademark Tours. After hurriedly finishing up our tuna and “Barber’s Advice,” a pear-vodka cocktail made with sage, cumin, clove, all-spice, vermouth, maple bitters and prosecco, we head over to nearby Salt & Olive, an olive oil and vinegar seller. The manager gives us a brief history of olive oil, which was a source of currency, energy and heat in Antiquity, until the Greek Hippocrates discovered that olive oil was, in fact, particularly pleasant to the palate. She tells us what to look for in good oil: “mouthfeel, fruitiness, consistency and viscosity.” Freshness, we learn, is key to the quality of olive oil: the younger it is, the more flavorful and peppery it will taste. She gives us instructions on how to taste it: hold the cup in between your palms and swirl it so that the aroma develops. Smell. Sip. Coat your tongue. Exhale through your nose. The decisively fruity flavor of the oil soon covers our noses and tongues.

Balsamic vinegar follows different rules. Like wine, it must be sufficiently aged. The shopkeeper demonstrates the difference between commercial vinegar and one of their house varieties: when she swirls them in transparent glasses, all visible trace of the store-bought kind disappears from the glass in a few seconds, while the house vinegar coats the entire surface in a deep red hue.

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“This is what ageing does for you,” she concludes. “It’s pretty spectacular.”

Our faces all light up when we taste the vinegar, which is surprisingly rich and balanced, full of complex aromas.

“I didn’t even know I liked vinegar!” a woman explains, in awe. “This is amazing!”

We have time to wander through the store for a few minutes. We dip bread in oil and strawberries in vinegar, taking as many sips as we can from varieties that include “Eureka lemon fused extra virgin olive oil” and the rich, dark, woody “espresso-aged” balsamic vinegar. We are then directed to our third stop: “Follow the Honey,” a warm, tea-smelling store belonging to a “small family beekeeper and artist group.” We are introduced to two honeys: a light, crystallized one from Vermont and a darker Mexican concoction. The store emphasizes their commitment to conservation and sustainability. “All the collection,” we are told, “depends entirely on seasonality.” Today, for example, they have just received a lavender honey from Provence (“our most sought-after honey”) which tastes, as our group unanimously agrees on, like perfumed bushes and summer.

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We then visit two other Grafton group destinations: Russell House Tavern and—after a brief stop at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, the square’s specialist in international delicatessen—PARK Restaurant & Bar. At Russell House, we sample a spicy cocktail made with green chili vodka, and jalapeño and green bell peppers, aimed at “breaching the gap between the bar and the kitchen,” as one of the chefs explains. The cocktail elicits a variety of comments from our group. “This tastes like something you should eat,” my neighbor comments. A friend adds: “Like tacos or something.”

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The drink is served in combination with fried oyster. “You’re just supposed to shoot,” our waited informs us. “Just shoot.” The oyster’s fried saltiness, combined with the radish—crunchy, watery and fresh—and the exotic miso broth at the bottom of the oyster shell, is perfect when paired with our dry, peppery cocktail. At this point, my friend, who is having sudden doubts about her vegetarian commitment pulls out her phone to look up “The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels.” She ultimately capitulates and decides to abide by her principles. While she sips her cocktail, I “shoot” both of our oysters with evident satisfaction.

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PARK is our last stop. We are presented with an assortment of toasts—grape, cheese and shredded tuna; cheese, blackberries, and honey; and a warm biscuit topped with apple sauce and cheddar—alongside one of their most popular cocktails, the “Tender Whim,” known to adapt to individual clients’ desires and the chef’s inspiration of the moment. Ours consists of Bourbon, cinnamon syrup, lemon juice, and a strong-smelling orange peel.

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The tour ends at 5:20 p.m., but in the dark, musky comfort of PARK’s leather couches, no one seems to complain. My friend and I pick up a book from one of the elegant shelves, but our waiter points toward a more mysterious object: a secret cigar box where clients leave notes. With our stomachs and minds inspired by the shopkeepers’ and chefs’ passion for their products, by our brisk, guided walk through Harvard’s autumn air, and by the excited, hectic, sensory overstimulation of the afternoon, we write down our impressions of the tour.