Bondir, Cambridge, MA, Sept. 2018

You may be lucky enough to have a friend who is a professional chef and occasionally invites you over for dinner. While I count two professional chefs as friends, neither lives close enough to drop by or invite me over for dinner. So, for me, and for everyone else with limited access to chefs’ homes, let me introduce you to Bondir in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the river from Boston.

You’ll find the entrance in a simple brick-walled building with a single window and door.

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Once inside, you’ll find the main (and only) dining area may be smaller than your living room or family room.

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There are only 9 tables with 28 seats in a warm and inviting room. If your grandmother had a farmhouse, she may have had a room like this. There’s a cozy fireplace, picture window looking outside (not really much to see there, but it opens up the room), a painting of a farm scene in autumn, and a butcher block serving table. 

Nor will it take you long to meet the entire staff. Chef Jason Bond is in the kitchen and, at least the night we were there, one waiter took are of the room. There was really no need for anyone else. This is truly an intimate dining experience.

Nor will you spend a lot of time trying to decide what to eat. There is a 5-course tasting menu, take it or leave it.  While Chef Bond is happy to accommodate dietary restrictions, this is definitely a case where you will want to communicate them when you make the reservations, not when you arrive.

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The menu changes daily at the whim of the chef and with what ingredients grab his attention that day. Chef Bond has spent over 20 years not only building his skills as a chef, but also building relationships with small local farmers, fisherman, foragers, and ranchers to have a regular supply of fresh, seasonal ingredients. There are few fine restaurants these days that don’t talk about “farm to table” and “seasonal ingredients,” but sticking to those ideals 100% of the time can be difficult for a large establishment. It’s much easier (though by no means easy) for a small place.

There is certainly nothing unique about a bread basket to start a restaurant meal. Many places offer a choice of several interesting kinds of bread, but the once served at Bondir is an eye-catcher.

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Have you heard of Ölandsvete (or Ølandsvete)? I had not before this meal. It is Swedish for Oland (Öland, Øland) wheat. It is an ancient variety of wheat grown on a large island named Oland off of Sweden’s east coast in the Baltic Sea.

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It is a low yielding, high protein wheat that was once common all across Europe and Northern Africa. Like many other heritage varieties, it almost disappeared in favor of higher-yielding (and so more commercially viable) varieties until a few Swedish farmers started bringing it back and local bakers started using it in traditional sourdough recipes. 

If I was not already aware that the sourdough bread on my plate was different, I might just have thought it was really good whole wheat sourdough bread. It seemed to me that it did have a somewhat stronger structure while still being very tender, but was that real or just me trying to find a difference?

You can get some Oland flour and try it yourself. It is imported from Sweden by Maine Grains in the US. That was the only source I could find, but there may be others. If you are a baker and have some sourdough starter on hand (as many people do these days), here’s a recipe for making the bread.

 

Pretty standard bread-making technique, really, and I am sure you could substitute Oland wheat in any recipe calling for whole wheat and get good results if you are a reasonably experienced baker.

You have probably seen blue corn chips in your local grocery store. Blue corn is not a sweet corn that you can cook and eat off the cob, but it is widely grown in the southwestern US and in Mexico and used just the same as yellow corn. Technically, blue corn is a bit more nutritious and potentially healthier than white or yellow corn, as the compounds that cause the blue color (the same ones found in blueberries) have some anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. It’s also a bit higher in protein and lower in starch. However, the overall difference is not big, so, sadly, we can’t pig out on blue chips and salsa and feel all virtuous.

Blue bread however, has never shown up on my plate before. But why not? Corn bread is delicious, so why not bring a lot of color and maybe a little more nutrients to the party with blue corn? The blue corn sourdough bread was another delicious example of how bread should look, feel, and taste.

Finally (and we are still just on the bread plate!), Elderberry Croissants. Elderberries (sometimes called sambucus, their taxonomic genus) are a species of dark blue, almost black, berries that grow wild all across the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

Image by Edal Anton Lefterov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25451700

The raw berries are generally not eaten as they are rather tart and certain varieties can be poisonous, but the cooked berries and parts of the plants have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. There is a long list of claims that elderberry can cure anything from colds to cancer, but there is not much scientific testing to back up those claims. The berries are often used to make syrups and jams that are used in all sorts of ways in cooking and home remedies. They can also be baked into pies and tarts or baked into croissants, as they were here. A plain croissant is a pretty delicious pastry all by itself, but they are quite receptive to all kinds of add-ins. Chocolate croissant, anyone? Well, it turns out elderberries are also a great addition.

Of course you need something to wash down even the best bread, and what is better than something bubbly?

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The NV Paul Mas, Côté Mas, Brut Crémant de Limoux is a sparkling wine from France that is not a Champagne. Champagne is a region in Northern France and only sparkling wines made there can be legally called Champagne. When you see Crémant on a bottle of wine from France, it means the wine inside has been made just like Champagne, but is usually lightly sparkling—not quite a bubbly as Champagne. There are 9 areas in France where Crémant wines are produced, and they offer some delicious alternatives to Champagne at much more reasonable prices. (I wish more bars and restaurants found a good Crémant or two for their wine list to replace the dreaded Proseccos, but maybe that’s just me). 

Crémant de Limoux comes from a specified part of the large Languedoc-Roussillon. It is made primarily with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc grapes, possibly blended with with some Pinot Nor or Mauzac (also called Blanquette). These wines will not make you forget all about a vintage Dom Perignon or Krug, but they can be delicious, are always food-friendly, and their fresh, floral, often citric aromas and flavors are a lively way to wake up your palate at the beginning of a meal. 

So what to serve with the Crémant? Compressed Melon with Green Yuzu, Sake, Pac Choi, Hazelnuts and Black Sesame.

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Sometimes I think high-end restaurants go overboard trying to make each plate look like a work of art, but I couldn’t help but admire how the plating and the plate here made such a pretty picture. Ripe melon (not sure what variety), compressed to give it more body, then flavored with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit even more sour than lemons and limes) and sake (Japanese rice wine). There was a bit of sautéed Pac Choi (Bok Choy) under the melon and a smear of black sesame seed paste swirled on the plate. The hazelnuts contributed great texture and flavor. 

It was still tomato season, and, since we are on the ocean in Cambridge, why not add some crab?

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Not that long ago, seeing an heirloom tomato in my local supermarkets was pretty rare and they were pretty expensive. They are pretty common these days, especially in the summer, but they are still pretty expensive. They can be worth it, though, as good ones are far more flavorful than almost any mass-produced variety even in high season. 

Jonah Crab was more of a mystery to me; I had not heard of it. As it turns out, they are the Atlantic Ocean cousins of perhaps my favorite crab, the northern Pacific Dungeness. 

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Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region – Jonah crab, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47063711

The Jonah Crab is smaller than the Dungeness, but it has a bonus: a large front claw that looks and tastes much like Stone Crab claws from Florida. They are a bit smaller, but they are much cheaper and available year-round.

For many years, Jonah crabs were just a nuisance to lobster fisherman. They would get into the lobster pots and reduce the number of lobsters caught. Somebody eventually decided they taste good, so, instead of killing them and throwing them back into the ocean, they are brought back and sold with the lobster. I guess it’s still an unhappy ending for the crab, but at least its death is celebrated by a happy diner rather than cursed by an unhappy lobsterman. 

Tomato and crab work well together. They are both relatively mild flavors, with both the crab and tomato adding sweetness while the tomato adds balancing acidity. Mayonnaise alone can be a nice sauce for them, but Chef Bond added some mild-flavored herbs to the mix: fennel flowers and basil. The vegetable, meat, sauce, and herbs all played very well together. (Yes, I know, a tomato is a fruit botanically, but it is treated as a vegetable culinarily.)

Just as a light touch was needed to sauce the dish, a light wine was called for to complement it. 

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Let’s translate the wine label, shall we? The producer is Vesevo (the website is only in Italian). The wine is made from the Falanghina grape, which has been used to produce aromatic white wines for millennia, perhaps as early as the Greek Empire. It fell out of favor over the centuries and has become relatively rare in Italy, with little grown outside of the Beneventano area in the Campania region of southern Italy. Falanghina wines are light, crisp, and can have the flavors and aromas of a variety of fruits—apricot, citrus, melons, tropical—and sometimes nuts. Younger is better with these wines. 

I didn’t catch the vintage of the wine served here, but it was certainly no  more than 2-3 years old. It was a classic Falanghina, light, crisp, floral, and a perfect match to the dish.

Next, the meat course: Beef Strip Loin with Chanterelle mushrooms and roasted corn.

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Simple ingredients, perfectly prepared to make a delicious dish. The beef was meltingly tender. The smoky-sweetness of the roasted corn purée complements the meat nicely, and what is better than roasted mushrooms with a good steak? 

For a classically structured dish, a classical wine pairing: a Cabernet Sauvignon, this one from Argentina.

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Argentina has a reputation for producing great Malbecs, and rightfully so. However, they also produce some excellent Cabernets, often at very reasonable prices, and this wine is a great example. Finca Decero is a family-owned, single-vineyard winery in the Mendoza region of Argentina. They make only red wines, primarily Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, which they feel are ideal for the elevation (3,500 ft or 1,050 m), soil, and climate of the vineyard. This wine had a lot of dark fruit flavors with notes of chocolate, herbs, and some tobacco-cigar box notes. It was perfect with the beef, and you can find it in retail shops for under $25 per bottle.

The menu so far has been a classic progression from salad to seafood to meat. The progression continued with a sorbet.

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I have written before that, to my taste, the “palate cleanser” sorbet course could easily be eliminated from most menus, cutting out some calories and sugar with little loss. However, if you are going do a sorbet course, do it well—like this one. The Shiro plum is a medium-sized yellow plum from Asia that I see in my local supermarket in season. It is delicious when fully ripe, firm and sweet. 

Sumac is a family of shrubs that produces clusters of small red fruits. There are many varieties found all over the world. The fruit is not edible, but can be dried and ground into a flavorful spice that is popular in the Middle East and Central Asia. It can also be brewed to make an herbal tea, which is apparently what was done here. 

When you hear “sumac” you might think of “poison sumac,” especially of you live in the eastern United States. Like poison ivy, it can cause an itchy, painful rash on contact. Poison sumac was once classified with other sumacs, but is no longer considered part of that family.

Top the plum and sumac combo with a Begonia bloom to add color, texture and a nice floral-herbal aroma and flavor and you have a creamy, flavorful and not-to-sweet intermezzo.

The first of two dessert courses was a poppyseed tart.

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The savory crust was filled with a sweet blueberry compote that was topped with husk cherries and a scoop of lavender ice cream. Husk cherries, also called ground cherries or husk tomatoes, were once common in gardens across the US. They look like a small yellow tomato wrapped in a paper husk, sort of like a small tomatillo.

Image by Shandris – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22866172

Unfortunately, husk cherries do not ship well, so they were largely eliminated in favor of fruits that are more commercially viable. If you cut one open, it looks a lot like a tomato, but the flavor is like a ripe, sweet tomato crossed with some kind of tropical fruit like a pineapple or mango. They are delicious eaten as they come, as presented in this dish, or they can be used to make jellies and jams or mixed with other fruits in pies, cakes, and tarts (as in this dish). You might see them in your local supermarket, but they are more likely found at a farmer’s market. 

The light scent of lavender in the creamy ice cream just kind of melted over everything to bring it all together in a very flavorful but, like the sorbet, not too sweet, dish.

The final beverage pairing was not a wine, but a sweet, hard, local (or at least regional) apple cider.

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Eden Specialty Ciders is a Vermont company that specializes in—you guessed it—apple ciders. They make a whole line of products that includes still ciders, sparkling ciders, and several styles of aperitifs. The ciders are made only once a year when the apples are fully ripe and at their peak. The apples are locally grown and mostly heritage varieties. The juice is concentrated naturally in the fruit as it hangs in the cold Vermont winter air.

This one was made with 100% Honeycrisp apples. This is not an heirloom variety (it was developed in the 1970s and 80s), but it has become very popular because, as the name implies, it has great sweetness and crunch. The cider had a beautiful golden color. Like a good desert wine, it has a solid acid backbone to balance the sweetness and make it clean and refreshing to drink. 

Our final course was a kicked up chocolate pot de crème (which is a fancy name for chocolate pudding).

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OK, a pudding and a pot de crème are technically different. A pudding relies on a starch (usually corn starch) to thicken it, while a pot de crème is thickened by eggs, so it is more like a chocolate custard. Technicalities aside, chocolate pudding, mousse, custard, or pot de crème are all delicious, creamy desserts. 

While a pot of chocolate (or, in this case, a small cup, which is plenty) is a fine dessert all by itself, it can certainly be elevated with a few slices of peaches that had been marinated in the same yuzu juice we saw in the first course and a cookie. The cookie here is a sable, which is a French shortbread cookie. To tie it to the chocolate theme of the dessert, some cocoa nibs (crushed cocoa beans) were folded into the cookie dough to add flavor and crunch.

You can certainly find restaurants where the meals are served with much more show and sizzle. There are restaurants that make dazzling use of molecular gastronomy and other flashy techniques. However, you won’t find many restaurants that serve better food with better ingredients prepared more perfectly. Bondir is an ideal dining experience for anyone who wants a world-class meal in a comfortable, low-key, welcoming setting. I wish it was in my neighborhood!

Bondir
Address: 279A Broadway Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: (617) 661-0009
Reservations: opentable.com
Website: http://www.bondircambridge.com

Dress Code: Smart Casual
Price Range: $50 and up
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday: 5:00 – 10:00 PM
Credit Cards: AMEX, MasterCard, Visa

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The author is a member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.

All images were taken with a Sony a7 III camera with a Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS Standard Zoom Lens (SEL24105G) using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik Collection by DxO and Skylum® Luminar® plugins. 

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