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Rendezvous again...maybe not

The bar at Rendesvouz
The bar at Rendesvouz
by Steve Johnson

502 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139

I won't write home about Rendezvous but I will write to you - the faithful Examiner reader.

A reservation for four at 7:15 was booked through Open Table for a Saturday night on Friday afternoon (just 1 day before!). A detail that sheds some light on either the popularity of this establishment, the economy or both. My dinner companions and I selected Rendezvous because (a) we wanted to be in Cambridge, (b) we wanted a reasonably priced meal, (c) several websites gave favorable reviews and (d) the menu looked enticing.

The room has a warm yet contemporary feel.  A local photographer's black and white works are displayed on the walls. We had read that the location used to be a Burger King and they have done an admirable job of removing all hints of it's 'super-size me' past. I wonder how many times the wait staff has heard a request from a customer to 'have it their way?'

Service was just on the unhappy side of well-paced. Just about the time I began to wonder where our waitress was or when the food was coming she or it arrived. But I had to wonder. A tad more attention would have been nice. At least we weren't being rushed out for the next seating. Another sign?

When we asked if there were any specials the waitress said without hesitation, “Everything on the menu.” Her face was devoid of expression. No smirk, no personality.  Had she used this line so many times that she’d forgotten to demonstrate a hint of humanity? A self-deprecating waiter is someone I can appreciate.  I wasn’t getting one tonight.

On to the food.  All four of us ordered an appetizer. In retrospect I would have appreciated some direction from our waitress. The apps here are sizeable and the server could have warned us that we were ordering a lot of food. No such help came. All the apps were very good, but isn't the server  there to act as a guide?

My wife had the ‘Spicy Rhode Island squid with garlic, arroz negro and Spanish chorizo ‘ (a Spanish dish of long grain rice made black by the squid’s ink). It had an musty - not in a bad way - seafood taste that some might find overpowering but we loved. The thin slices of Spanish chorizo were a nice counterpoint to the squid.

I had the ‘potato gnocchi with foraged mushrooms, fava beans, spinach and piave cheese.’ It was served to my surprise in a light broth. It was more of a soup really. The gnocchi were light and fluffy and irregularly sized, which I took to mean house-made. It was very good but I could have done fine with a serving half its size.

I tried my dining companions Turkish pizza: roasted eggplant purée, tomato, crumbled feta, black olive, wild marjoram and maras pepper, which was very good. The crust was paper thin and crispy, the eggplant puree served as a pinch hitter for what otherwise would have been a tomato sauce on ‘real’ pizza. It was spread thin and held all the other finely chopped ingredients together. The exception was the tomato which was placed on the pizza in hearty slices.

Three of us ordered the same item for our entrée. It was the ‘braised pork and veal meatballs with toasted orecchiette, maitakes and piave cheese.’ When we pressed our waitress to direct us to the ‘more special’ items on the menu she said the meatballs, without reservation. She claimed them to be far and away the best and everything else a close second.

If these meatballs were in a race against others I’ve had elsewhere they would have come in towards the back of the pack. Were they horrible or inedible? No. Were they outstanding? No again. I found them to be too dense. I believe meatballs, like hamburger patties, must be handled gently. Handling, stirring and mixing the meat too much and then pressing them into shape with great force leads to tough meatballs. Also, they were browned on only 40% of their surface. This struck me as the sign of a lazy kitchen. So much flavor comes from browning that I was shocked there was so much of it missing on every meatball on the table. The majority of the meatball had a grayish, washed out appearance from the braising liquid.

The flavor of the meatballs was good, but like their appearance not great. They were served with ‘toasted orecchiette.’ One table mate proclaimed, ‘Some of my pasta is burnt to a crisp!’ I reminded her that the menu described it as ‘toasted.’ She hadn’t noticed this detail and was a bit put off by this unusual treatment. I was nonplused by it. And my companion was right, some pieces were simply burned and this was not a good thing.

One particular negative to our experience was the way we felt the morning after. All three meatball eaters had gastrointestinal issues the next morning. Nothing horrible, just a few too many trips to the bathroom throughout the night and some discomfort the next day. We could only conclude it was the meatballs because the only one of us who didn't have this problem didn't have them. Just a warning.

All in all it was a pleasant evening - just not a pleasant morning after - with friends and we accomplished much of what we set out to do that evening. Unfortunately, there was nothing terribly compelling about Rendezvous. I believe it is not so much the economy that allowed us to get such a prime time reservation only one day in advance, but rather the restaurant itself. Next time we rendezvous in Cambridge we’ll try something new.