Thanks to Buick LaCrosse for underwiting the Serious Eats Road Trip and for loaning us a Buick LaCrosse. We drove from New York City to Boston and back, checking out some of the great food experiences along the way.buicklacrosse16.png

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Chef Tony Maws. [Photographs: Carey Jones]

When the good folks at Buick handed over the LaCrosse for our Serious Eats road trip, we talked about "value-driven world-class dining" as the theme—and it was that guidance that led us to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for dinner at Craigie on Main. Yes, we drove 200 miles for dinner cooked by chef-owner Tony Maws, who serves cuisine that Serious Eats columnist Kenji Alt has aptly described as "homey with a touch of mad science."

On my last visit to the Boston area with my wife and son, I had dragged them to Craigie on Main for both brunch and dinner on the Sunday we arrived in Boston. But having dictated those plans, I couldn't bring myself to tell them what to order. Please don't feel sorry for us—my son, Will, ordered Craigie's transcendent burger and fries, and I got to try an equally special lentil soup with disk of crisp lamb shoulder smack in the middle of the bowl.

But we did miss out on the $39 four-course chef's whim dinner, in which you put yourself at Maws's magical mercy for an entire meal. Four courses by one of the nation's most exciting chefs for less than $40? That sounds like the definition of "value-driven world-class dining."

When we left our keys with the valet, we also left our entire evening in Maws and company's capable hands, and man, they didn't disappoint. Those "chef's whims"? They're delicious impulses that can't be test-driven by many home cooks or even chefs.

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We ordered two "chef's whims"—one vegetarian, one not—that managed to be equally vibrant, impressive, and impossibly tasty. The vegetarian amuse trio? Crunchy, barely sweet lily bulbs in a mellow sesame vinaigrette; a red beet tartare so tender one would never want for tuna, brightened by a tart ravigote and served with a light, crispy sesame cracker; and a dainty potato slice with a sun dried tomato-feta vinaigrette. Three perfect bites—each, in itself, a carefully composed dish. (These may be whims, but they're elaborate whims.)

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In a showdown between those three bites and the seafood amuse trio, I wouldn't know where to put my money. A silky monkfish liver pate (foie de lotte au torchon) had the sort of impossible depth that leads you to spoon up one almost imperceptibly small bite at a time, letting each one melt on your tongue, wishing it would never end. Ahi tuna, while sublime enough sliced and served, is elevated even more when it's confited and served with an Indian lime pickle. And a brandade fritter gets a perfect thin, crispy coating, served with a squid ink anchoiade that triples the umami factor. It would make any other fish and chips jealous.

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The veggie starter paired grilled fresh hearts of palm and artichokes with an equally earthy cardoon puree—made substantially more exciting with a vinaigrette of yuzu kosho, an extraordinarily pungent Japanese condiment of chile, yuzu zest, and salt. A dish that singlehandedly refutes one's conception of vegetarian food as dull, one-note, or insubstantial.

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Even beautifully straightforward dishes show considerable thought. A Loup de Mer is seared on the plancha and served with fresh garbanzos and a pile of Maine shrimp that taste straight from the sea.

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"I don't usually put pasta on the menu," chef Maws told us, "because people have certain preconceptions about it." Understandable, but a crying shame, because the pasta dishes we tried (yes, we snuck in an extra course) were absolute showstoppers. The best anyone in our party had ever tried in Boston, and up there with the phenomenal work of Michael White at Marea.

The vegetarian dish featured the most delicate tortellini we've ever had, of cheese curd, raisin, pine nuts, and Swiss chard; its sauce, a velvety, sweet carrot puree, benefits from the depth of a musky saba syrup.

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In the most memorable dish we had that night, Maws topped thin handkerchiefs of housemade pasta with a ragu of pork heart sausage, sea urchin, and morel mushrooms—the faint iron tang of the pork heart pairs strangely and beautifully with the funky, oceanic quality of the sea urchin, which in turn dissolves over the pasta.

Like nearly every one of Craigie's dishes, it's a work of almost impossible complexity that tastes, somehow, natural and logical once it hits your tongue—almost rustic, in its improbably straightforward, bold flavors. This dish could convince you that Italian grandmothers had been making pork heart-sea urchin ragu for centuries. That Maws can pull such novel and numerous ingredients into such a beautifully focused plate is perhaps the truest testament to his skill.

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Is it best to serve an Elysian Fields Lamb as a spice-crusted loin dish, roasted sweetbreads, or confited breast? After each bite, you're convinced the last was the best, most lamb-y lamb dish you've ever been served—and the next one changes your mind.

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Last, a celery root and potato gratin with a beautiful array of spring vegetables. To say it was the least exciting course says more about the brilliance of the rest of the menu than it does about this beautifully composed vegetarian dish.

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Ditto the desserts, which would be memorable on almost any other dessert menu in the land, but don't quite dazzle in the manner of earlier courses. Our favorites were a Peanut Butter Parfait flanked by buttery, crumbly biscuits and a delicious Gingerbread Pain Perdu, with a perfect crust and soft, puddinglike interior. We finished every bite—but neither would make you drop your fork in surprise and delight. Other dishes did.

To eat at Craigie is to witness a chef at the top of his game. As the waiters recite the composition of each dish, the ingredient lists may seem unlikely (pork heart and sea urchin) or precious (foam, really?) or unfamiliar (yuzu kosho). But on the plate, it all makes sense, every bite; whimsically inventive dishes seem natural and focused. It's like watching a juggler with seven balls in the air—the more that's tossed in, the more difficult it is to keep a rhythm, to present a coherent show. But he nails it.

And for two twenties—plus tip—it's yours.

Craigie on Main

853 Main Street, Cambridge MA 02139 (map)
Chef's Whim served Sunday nights after 9:00 PM
617-497-5511
craigieonmain.com

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