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Review: Black Sheep

Former firehouse lights small spark
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  February 4, 2009
1.0 1.0 Stars

SLOW FOOD Turtle cheese cake is the pick of desserts here.

Black Sheep | 350 Main Street (Kendall Hotel), Cambridge | 617.823.8092 | Open Mon–Friday, from 7–10 am, 11:30 am–2 pm, and 5:30–10 pm; and Sat, from 8–11 am, and 5:30–10 pm | full bar | no valet parking | sidewalk-level access
In bygone days, Kendall Square was not where firemen wanted to be — bad neighborhood, MIT pranks, too many fires, who knows? In any case, the men (all men in those days) of Engine 7 were considered the black sheep of the department. Now, that idea has been renewed in the form of a 10-table café in a boutique hotel that used to be a Cambridge firehouse. The name: Black Sheep.

There is no lamb or mutton on the regular menu, and nothing is smoked or blackened. The food is not raced to the table with sirens blaring, either. But there is a kind of all-American theme to the food, such as might be served in a firehouse.

Don't be alarmed.

Black Sheep is a perfectly serviceable restaurant that just doesn't have a lot of distinction. It is especially good for a quiet lunch, and being a hotel restaurant, is also a welcome option for a power breakfast. Dinner can be quiet, since there is a Legal Seafoods nearby. But considering that the dining room is located in a converted parking bay, it is remarkably cozy — even on a winter night.

The breadbasket has multi-grain slices and thin wedges of a light, not-too-sweet Northern-style yellow cornbread. My favorite appetizer was the Maine crab cakes ($11), six nugget-size fritters each served on a triangle chip, the way nachos used to be, with a bit of bell-pepper purée as a dip. "Firehouse Chili" ($6 cup/$8 bowl) is pretty good, with a lot of green bell peppers (technically chilies) and only a little tomato (of which I do not approve) per beef. Sour cream has now replaced onions alongside cheddar cheese as toppings. A soup of the day our night was a nice and thick squash variety ($6/$8) with a slight kick of ginger.

Veggies and dip ($9) is listed on the "Starters" menu, but actually is more of a bar snack. Although the hummus-like dip is excellent with carrots, garlic toasts, and some roasted vegetables, there wasn't enough to make anything out of the accompanying slices of rolled-up, uncooked wheat tortilla. Using a green tortilla inside a plain one looks better, but it doesn't taste any better.

Salad eaters have several options from which to choose, though only a few work well. In the positive category, there's the "Baby Kendall" salad ($8): a fine spinach salad with bits of blue cheese, lightly sugared pecans, and thin sticks of green apple. And the "Simple Salad" ($6): a mixture of field greens (or greenhouse greens) with grape tomatoes, carrots, and cucumber. Of the various dressing choices, maple vinaigrette worked out well. The "Black Sheep" salad ($16), however, is a monstrous thing designed to please a very hungry person who wants to believe he or she is on a diet. The weak spot is mediocre winter pesto, undermining strips of chicken breast and some roasted vegetables, and even tainting a large salad of greens and more roast vegetables.

My favorite entrée was filet mignon ($27) — even if it was cooked medium-well instead of medium-rare — with truly great mashed potatoes (one of four starch options, including mashed yucca potatoes, Basmati rice, and risotto) and a nice sauté of summer squash, peppers, and onions. A good piece of grilled salmon ($22) was a little dried out. It comes with a bit of sauce and a combination of mashed potatoes and yucca, which I'm betting we'll see more of in the future. You can taste each starch, but the mixture has the richness of potatoes.

Chicken pot pie ($14), a frequent special, is very solid, with a nice crust that keeps the creamed chicken and vegetables hot. The vegan entrée, "Fresh Pasta" ($17), was made from green fettuccine, and the other ingredients did not form a sauce. I ended up with chunks of tomato, shitake mushroom, spinach, and a few pine nuts, but no synthesis. The Statler chicken ($19) is served with the first wing sticking up, but has otherwise been de-boned. Here the problem was too much rosemary — a good herb in moderation, but too resinous when piled on. Basmati rice was fragrant and nicely cooked.

Black Sheep has a short but decent list of American wines and beers. A glass of 2006 Trentadue merlot ($9 glass/$35 bottle) had some Bordeaux-style spice, and so much tannin that I'd buy a bottle and put it away. When you get a glass of wine like that, swirl it a lot, as some of the astringency will air out. Coffee had an unusual "flaw": it was too strong. (And I usually like strong coffee.) The decaf was just fine, and tea gets you only a choice of bags, but at least they're brewed in a china pot.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Cambridge, Culture and Lifestyle, Food and Cooking,  More more >
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