If you haven't been to Cambridge in awhile — say, since you left the hallowed halls of Harvard or M.I.T. — you are in for a culinary surprise. Sure, some of your favorite haunts are still around, serving up tasty burgers, and lobster mac and cheese. However, chefs of a new breed are crafting menus that reflect the vibrancy of the town's international community, combining cultures and tastes that in the past may have confounded bow-tie-and-Marimekko-frocked diners.
Regional ingredients mixed with far-flung flavors can be found in many of the bistros and restaurants popping up in every neighborhood. Via its association with Greater Boston, because of its location across the Charles River, Cambridge is claiming its place at the region's culinary table.
It's appropriate that the logo for Cafe Luna (cafeluna-centralsq.com, 617-576-3400) is a cappuccino with a heart sketched in foam. People obviously love the place, as attested to by lines that form for daily breakfast and weekend brunch. (Reservations are highly recommended!) Offerings skew toward traditional breakfast fare, with omelets, pancakes, Belgian waffles, French toast and such, but creative combos lift what could be mundane offerings to the sublime. Balsamic marinated figs are paired with goat cheese, leeks and prosciutto in a standout omelet ($15); grilled pears, bacon and Gorgonzola balance salty, sweet, creamy and crunchy elements in another ($15). On weekends, eggs Benedict — made every which way — take center stage, with the surf-and-turf Benedict ($25) in a solid starring role. On the sweet side of the menu, lemon ricotta pancakes steal the show ($15). Tables are crowded in a cozy way in the modern, industrial interior. Somehow, the staff manages to be friendly and efficient despite the crowds. Bar choices include bloody marys, mimosas, wine and beer. It also serves fair-trade coffee and espresso.
Barcelona meets Tokyo in Pagu (gopagu.com, 617-945-9290), a tapas-style restaurant helmed by chef Tracy Chang. Inspired by her grandmother's Japanese restaurant, Tokyo (a must-dine destination for an earlier generation of Cantabrigians), Chang's influences include stints at elegant O Ya sushi, Le Cordon Bleu Paris and a three-star Michelin restaurant in Spain. The resulting menu is a pas de deux of Japanese and Spanish flavors. Popular items include the colorful squid ink oyster bao (steamed buns), a riff on pork versions in Taiwanese night markets ($15); and cedar campfire black cod, a slightly smoky dish with accents of miso and sake ($23). Comfort food abounds. It's hard to resist the Guchi's midnight ramen, a warm embrace in a bowl of noodles with seared pork belly, three kinds of broth and six-minute egg ($16). A nontraditional lobster roll adds Asian pear and avocado to a sake kasu brioche bun ($23). Small plates are designed for sharing; admittedly, there are more choices at dinner than lunch. Beverages run the gamut from sherry to sake, plus seasonal cocktails, and Basque and American ciders. In the center of the cavernous space, an open kitchen is rimmed with seats where diners watch the chefs work their magic.
Regis is a writer based in Boston. Her website is necee.com. Find her on Twitter: @neceeregis.