Happy to be Here: Sunflower Chowder at West Bridge

Sunflower Chowder West Bridge

The highballs are served in highball glasses and the (quite potent) gin-based cocktails are served in coupes. The soapstone bar is broad and invites touching. The music enhances, rather than overpowers, the boisterous conversational hum. And the folks running the place—owner Alexis Gelburd-Kimler, chef Matthew Gaudet, and barman Josh Taylor—are, as far as I can tell, overjoyed to be there, and it shows in everything they do. Especially the food.

Gelburd-Kimler, a veteran of the restaurant scene, has long had a dream of running her own place. She’s picked a good site, one she used to drive by every day: right on the corner of the plaza at One Kendall Place, among a group of good restaurants that is well supplemented by the addition of a spot with a more ambitious culinary plan. Inside, the look is cleverly industrial: that sensuous soapstone bar, simple wooden tables (including a few long communal ones), lots of rough steel edging and accents—even the light bulbs are out of the ordinary, strangely intriguing. A few clear panes in a factory-style windowed wall offer glimpses into the kitchen. While the weather’s still warm, there are tables out on a terrace overlooking the plaza. And there’s what looks like a chef’s table in its own private room (well, as private as a room can be with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Hampshire Street). This is industrial done right: rough materials creating a warm, friendly, and slightly sexy atmosphere.

The menu is divided into small and large plates, and shows a lot of invention. I’ll be back to try the “egg in a jar”—a duck egg, with hen-of-the-woods mushroom and pomme puree, cooked sous-vide until it’s medium-soft, and topped with crispy skin—that a neighbor at the bar was enjoying immensely. She and her companion were advised that a party of four might enjoy a small plate each and one large plate to share. Sounds like a plan, especially at one of those inviting communal tables.

There’s no reason to eye other people’s plates, however, once the soup arrives. It’s “sunflower chowder, Wellfleet clams, smoked pork shoulder.” Three clams, just steamed open in wine, float in an ivory pool, sprinkled with micro greens and what look like the usual lardons of bacon. But there’s nothing usual about this soup. What would normally be a mixture of cream and roux here is a puree of roasted, salted sunflower seeds, loosened up with milk (and, yes, a little cream). No clam juice, no flour (though I didn’t ask if there was any other gluten)—can this possibly work? Definitely. The result is delicious: light, nutty, unlike any chowder I’ve had. There are tiny potato and celery dice hidden beneath the surface. The three sweet clams bring just enough clam-ness to the plate; this is a new riff on classic clam chowder, and the effect is delectable and subtle.

Oh, and those bacon lardons? They’re actually smoked pork shoulder—or, as Gaudet discovered on a trip to Montana, what’s known as Kansas City bacon, leaner and meatier than bacon cut from the belly. Gaudet smokes it in-house, in an improvised smoker until plans are completed to install the real thing. If this is the care they take, and the flavor they get, from a simple garnish, I can hardly wait until there’s a full-on program of smoked meat.The soup, while light, is deceptively rich (and it’s a generous pour). I refresh my palate with bites of a salad nicely dressed in lemon and honey. (The croutons are little cubes of brioche. The lemon is bruléed before the juice is harvested for the dressing. Who thinks of things like that? And would they please cook for me all the time?) With a basket of good bread and great butter, the meal makes a perfect prelude for a movie at the nearby Kendall Square Cinema. Or a prelude to staying right there, ordering up more perfectly prepared fare. They pay attention to small things here, and the results are beautiful.

West Bridge

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