Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Matthew Curtis and Christopher A. Lutes, perfect-pitch masters of minimalism at Miracle of Science, Cambridge 1, Middlesex Lounge, and Audubon Circle, have finally opened a restaurant with a few flaws. Despite the reactionary name, Tory Row is still close to the cutting edge of cool, still keeps it simple, and still gets most things right. There's just a bit of leakage this time, too.
PITA PIZZA: This white-cheddar, smoky-bacon, and spinach flatbread is so enticing you may want one for the table and for just yourself.
If I read the situation correctly, these Gen-Y geniuses looked out the windows of their newest location, right in the heart of Harvard Square, and got slightly nervous that they weren't twentysomethings anymore. The concept is geek chic, as usual, but with a touch of retro. Like all their locations, the ceiling here is black and the colors are muted: wood, brushed-metal stools, and slate tabletops. The kitchen is open, of course, and there's a single high-def TV turned to European championship soccer: Barcelona beating Manchester United.
The background music runs from Cab Calloway to weird vocal acid jazz, and four relatively obscure red, white, and black Shepard Fairey prints adorn the walls. (You have to tour the other restaurants to understand how unusual it is for these owners to put anything framed at eye level.) The other place your eye goes is out the floor-to-ceiling front windows, which line up with the main crosswalk in Harvard Square. This team has never challenged the starkness of their décor with a major exterior view this way.
Food starts wherever you want, from bar snacks, small plates, and appetizers, to sandwiches and entrées. The group's previous menus have been more focused; here, world-beat flavors jostle comfort food in a way that's not as perfect as I expected. You can dine or snack well, but it's not transporting. And some things don't work well at all — inexpensive wine in a tumbler is hard to taste and two flavors of Toscanini frozen treats in paper containers ($6) as the only desserts is a letdown, even if one of them is Meyer lemon sorbet.
At a minimum, the bowl of olives ($3) are varied but not marinated, and the post-modern moment is that they are all pitted. (This fools even the waitress, who brings out a saucer for the nonexistent refuse.) Littleneck clams ($11) are steamed like mussels in a garlicky broth with caramelized onions, and served with lots of hot, dense, white French bread. Spanish black-bean soup ($7), alive with Cuban flavors, especially cumin, was over-salted our night.
My favorite appetizer was the white-cheddar, smoky-bacon, and spinach flatbread ($10). This pizza on a fresh pita-like shell is so enticing you may want one for the table and one just for yourself. A grilled-chicken sandwich ($9) was pulled out of the ordinary by being grilled to a crisp. Put that on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and onion, and it's more like a club sandwich than a soggy poultry burger. The croque monsieur ($10) features the classic balanced combination of sourdough bread, ham, and cheese. This one is open face and broiled in the wood-fired oven rather than grilled.
Chicken pot pie ($11) is a throwback move that needs some work. The kitchen uses real green beans, carrots, peas, and chicken pieces, and doesn't overcook them, but it's a bit toothsome for classic tastes. The crust is wonderful and only needs more cooking time (at a cooler corner of the oven) for the flavors to mellow. Baked pasta with four cheeses ($14) is just what you might expect, only more of it. The pasta is rigatoni and the tomato sauce is sharp enough to stand out, though once you get past three cheeses, in my book, you might as well have six or 10 or one good one — the combination just tastes like cheese. A dinner of codfish with leeks and fingerling potatoes ($21), served in a small wok, is fresh but perhaps overly subtle for the surroundings.
Although some appetizers and sandwiches come with a side salad (baby greens, sweet dressing), you may well want side vegetables. The roast asparagus ($4) is impeccably prepared, but there are only seven pencil-thick spears, and too much sea salt besides the shaved parmesan. Potato rosti ($4) cooks hard in the hot oven; it takes leverage to saw off a piece.