By Joseph Winters ’20
Typical college dining calls to mind bowls of brothy ramen, burgers, pizza, burritos—cheap fast food. It can generally be eaten fast (or maybe it must be eaten fast—cold French fries are pretty much only useful as dog food) and seasoned with a healthy tablespoon or two of salt.
Bergamot, on the other hand, is nothing like that.
I had passed by the Somerville restaurant a couple times on runs to Union Square, assuming, as the name suggested, that it was a tea house or café of some sort (bergamot is an orange-derived flavoring for tea). But while you might be able to order some tea with your meal at Bergamot, the restaurant is by no means a teahouse. I spoke with co-owner Servio Garcia before visiting his restaurant this December, when he told me that they specialize in finding ways to “use what we are able to get on hand” locally. From there, Servio works some culinary magic to give those ingredients global flair by using “influences from all over the world.” But mostly, he says, he’s preoccupied with offering “the best dining experience to every one of our guests.”
As I walked into Bergamot, bundled up in my down coat, the host immediately offered to take it, whisking it away to some back room. This was the first indication at I was in over my head; never before had I been in a restaurant this upscale. I took a seat on the bench side of a table for two and observed the interior of the restaurant. Very dim lighting, a few elegantly dressed people, and a very small bar gave the single-room space intimacy. Soft music played, and the people around me talked in semi-hushed voices.
A waiter come to my table and explained that I would be receiving a variation of the chef’s tasting menu: the chefs would select a few items for me to try, serving them in smaller-than-usual portions so that I could try a wider variety of dishes. I thanked the waiter, took a sip of sparkling water, and prepared myself for the culinary surprises that awaited me.
First up, the waiter appeared with “bread service” for the evening. That day’s offering was a cornbread muffin with miso maple butter. It was crumbly and sweet, and I appreciated the miso’s funkiness. I self-consciously Instagrammed a photo of it, unsure of the proper food-tography etiquette for this style of restaurant.
The first real plate came soon after, and it looked like something from the TV show Chopped. Small chunks of beets were delicately piled atop a little schmear of whipped feta, dotted with some “spiced ancient grains” (quinoa and bulgur) and fried chickpeas, then drizzled with a mint and parsley pistou. I was actually pretty impressed that the waiter could remember all of the separate components of the dish when he described them to me. I’m a veggie lover, so this dish was an easy hit. It had tang from the feta, grit from the grains, crunch from the chickpeas, and sweetness from the beets. A definite winner.
Next out was a small bowl of house made cavatelli pasta with pieces of apple, chestnuts, and kale chips on top. It was dressed in chestnut madeira cream—I’m not entirely sure what that even means, but I liked it. There was a really mild, nutty sweetness to the sauce, often accompanied by a squishy golden raisin.
Next I got pan fried smelts, imported from Canada. The five sardine-sized fish were spread on a shallow dish, with pieces of medjool dates, olives, onion, tangerine, and boiled potato speckled between them, all drizzled with a garlic bread sauce (the last drops of which I ended up soaking up with some pieces of potato). This may have been my favorite dish of the night. The fish were served skin-on, nearly whole except for the head, and the skin was crisped to perfection, with an excellently gritty bit of char to them. This worked really well with the crispy boiled potatoes, and the dates were so tender they were falling apart before I could even get them into my mouth.
The next dish turned out to be the only dish I wasn’t pleased with. It was a charcuterie board with five different kinds of meat, each paired with their own kind of sauce or cream or cheese. To begin with, a charcuterie board felt a little out of place after the daintiness of the other dishes. Part of e problem may be that I’m far from a meat connoisseur—I used to be a vegetarian, and to this day eat meat mostly on special occasions. I tried each kind of meat, actually finding that I really liked some of the pairings more than the meats themselves. In particular, the crispy grits that went with a chicken patê were delicious, and the mustard that was paired with the sausage was super pungent. I finished around half the plate before telling the waiter I didn’t think I could finish the whole thing, hoping I hadn’t just committed an egregious faut pas in the foodie world.
Grilled salmon was next, and it turned out to be a testament to Bergamot’s mission of serving globally-inspired foods. Besides being a great piece of salmon (I would know; being from the Pacific Northwest has made me a salmon snob), cooked right to that delicate balance between juiciness and flakiness, it came with pineapple chow, pepper pot sauce, black beans, and molasses ham. This dish, my waiter informed me, was inspired by the owner’s recent trip to the Caribbean. Jamaican influence shone through in the pineapple chow and the molasses ham, but the pairing with salmon was an intriguing choice. “In true Bergamot fashion, here we have a dish putting together multiple cultural influences,” he explained. Completely and unapologetically nontraditional. “Here’s a saag paneer. Sort of,” my waiter told a nearby table a little later, making me smile to myself.
At this point in the meal, I was beginning to feel a little full, and nearly two hours had gone by. But I had no trouble finding room for the final savory dish that appeared in front of me: the Braised Short Plate. It was a simple piece of meat so tender that it was in severe danger of falling apart at a single prod from my fork, garnished with caramelized sweet potato, chimichurri, cabbage, and grape slaw. This plate was a definite winner—the grape slaw was a wonderfully fresh pairing with the rich meat and potato, and the chimichurri was light and tangy. The couple next to me also ordered this dish, and I couldn’t help but overhear their zealous enthusiasm for it, as well. Whenever their conversation lulled, one of them would say, “Wow, that short plate was so good!”
And, of course, there was dessert. I love describing this dish to friends because it combined so many different parts. A ginger snap cookie was topped with a small scoop of ginger ice cream, drizzled with some special cranberry-y sauce, and dotted with red wine poached prunes, these puffy cranberries called cranberry coulis, and whipped pistachio drops. Often when I go out, I look for the kinds of things that I would never be able to make myself, and this was certainly one of them. The cranberries were light and airy like a sort of sweet popcorn, and coated with crystallized sugar. The whipped pistachios were like pistachio-flavored chocolate chips, but softer and creamier. The ginger snap cookie and ice cream weren’t unlike many ginger snap cookies and ice cream that I’ve had, but I don’t think that was the point; the additions were what really made the dish shine.
Finally, after two and a half hours and seven courses, I walked out of Bergamot feeling pretty full but very happy. I had just eaten what had perhaps been the fanciest meal of my life. The food was great and the staff were friendly, knowledgeable, and, most importantly, passionate. As I left, one chef explained to me that recipe development is a joint effort between all staff members. “Every single cook has an influence on the menu,” Bergamot’s owner Servio Garcia told me in an interview a few days after my meal. “They just put ideas on the table,” and through trial and error, they come up a menu that is ever-changing, with no single item remaining on the menu for more than two or three months.
Fortunately for me, Servio invited me to review Bergamot’s sister restaurant, BISq, the very next night. So at 6:15 PM, I made the ten-minute bike ride from Harvard Yard towards eastern Somerville. BISq opened in the summer of 2015 and has since become a unique mainstay of the Boston-area dining scene. Servio describes his vision for BISq as a “wine bar where you can go and have great wines and awesome food.” BISq is best experienced in large groups—the more people in your group, the greater the number of tapas you’ll get to try. Also in the spirit of sharing, BISq offers “whole roasted animals.” Check out their Instagram page for some pretty impressive photos of entire pigs, charred and placed smack in the middle of a family-style table.
When I visited, I did not have quite a big enough appetite for a whole roasted animal. But I did have the opportunity to try some tapas. I was seated in an interesting area, at a bar right in front of the kitchen, so I got to watch the chefs preparing dishes, chopping and frying and slicing with delicate care. There seemed to be two other main areas to BISq, with more space for larger groups, but the room at the front of the restaurant, where I was, was a little smaller.
Based on a recommendation from my waitress, I ordered two veggie plates and two meatier ones: Cast-Iron Roasted Brassicas, Roasted Hen of the Woods, Fried Chicken, and 1/2 Lobster. The veggie dishes came out first. The roasted brassicas—cauliflower and broccoli—were piled in a small heap at the center of a plate and dotted with red harissa aioli. This dish was as delicious as it was beautiful—I loved the fun mix of different colored and shaped brassicas, and the bite-sized pieces were perfectly charred on the edges. But I immediately forgot about cauliflowers when the Roasted Hen of the Woods appeared. This was probably the most interesting dish of my meal. The hen of the woods (mushrooms, not pieces of chicken, as I had first thought) were piled atop a pureed spinach sauce, and some cured egg yolk served as a powdery topping. Each bite alternated between crispy or soft, crunchy or buttery. I had no problem polishing this plate off quite quickly.
Before dinner that night, I had been perusing BISq’s Instagram page, which had heavily featured their fried chicken dish. It turned out that this was because for that week, all proceeds from the sale of this dish would go towards relief for families affected by the East Cambridge fire of December 2016. I’d been craving a plate of my own, so I was excited to see it arrive, coming with a shallow bowl of buttermilk ranch with dots of Thai bird chili salt in the center. Although I think it would be pretty difficult to mess up fried chicken, BISq’s preparation was extra crispy, and that buttermilk sauce was more complex than your typical ranch dipping sauce. It had creaminess, some heat, and a little bit of tang, which came together nicely against the fried chicken.
Embarrassingly, when my 1/2 lobster arrived, I had to ask the waitress how to eat it; I’ve only eaten lobster once before. Was I supposed to crack the legs open? Use my hands? From what I gathered, eating lobster was sort of like an anything-goes mission, where whatever you can do to get at the tender lobster meat is acceptable. I dipped the flesh into a sweet and tart tub of meyer lemon sauce, accidentally splattering a little bit of buttery goodness all over the counter in front of me. I inconspicuously tidied my area up and continued to crack my lobster legs. There were also brussels sprouts with pear butter that served as a nest for the lobster. There are a lot of nonbelievers when it comes to brussels sprouts, but I think they’ve probably just never had them done the right way. BISq certainly does them the right way, roasting them just enough to cook through and absorb the pear butter, but leaving them with enough body of their own to retain some bite.
After scooping up the last bit of meyer lemon sauce, I looked at the wreckage I’d created with some satisfaction. Four dishes done beautifully. Although my meal at Bergamot was an incredible dining experience, I would have to say that BISq is more my style. I would take someone to Bergamot if I wanted to impress them, but I would go to BISq to have a good time. I think this probably fits with the kinds of audiences Bergamot and BISq are trying to cater to; Bergamot is more formal, BISq more casual. But both of Servio Garcia’s restaurants show his commitment to quality food and interesting preparation. I left contentedly to a happy farewell from the waitstaff, my bike ride back to my dorm fueled by the warm memory of chili buttermilk, meyer lemons, harissa aioli, and hen of the woods mushrooms.