Remember when Harvard Square had all-night cafeterias filled with procrastinating students and desperate local bohemians? David Zebny (Harvard, ’84) doesn’t go back that far, but he’s pushed the hours to midnight at his new, affordable Z Square. He’s also brought back a sausage platter in tribute to the lamented Wursthaus and, crucially, has hired Paul Sussman as his chef, who ran the now-defunct Daddy-O’s in Inman Square. That restaurant, more than any other recent attempt, recaptured the playful, thrifty spirit of the old Harvard Square with breakfast-type comfort food on all its menus, and international inspirations more hearty than authentic. Z Square, as a result, has breakfast, lunch, and dinner at all hours; a jazz soundtrack; and a California-moderne look that is not so different from the old cafeteria Bauhaus. Not everything is perfect, but that’s part of the scene.
In fact, nostalgia reaches all the way back to the 1930s with the reintroduction of the paid bread basket ($3.95). That gets you foil-wrapped butter and four quasi-French rolls, possibly with your other appetizers, possibly not. If the soup of the day ($3.95/cup; $4.95/bowl) is curried vegetable, you should certainly have that. It’s well flavored and packed with fresh vegetables.
Daddy-O’s chipotle wings ($6.95) are upscale Buffalo wings, but little harm is done. The chipotle powder, applied duringfrying, doesn’t have the expected smoke and is more sneaky-hot than the usual fiery Tabasco effect. Our little cup of blue-cheese dressing could have used more cheese, but the celery and carrot sticks were there, for reasons not even Buffalonians know. Ten wing segments are a nice snack, and a bunch of cress under the wings makes foran extra treat they’ve probably never heard of in Buffalo.
A special endive salad ($7) had more blue cheese in an excellent vinaigrette dressing on a salad of mostly frisée and field greens, with four token leaves of endive. This suits a student hangout where many diners will be ordering endive for the first time. Crispy potato cakes ($4.95) are somewhat bland la
es with a nice frisée salad. The sautéed-mushroom and Swiss chard crêpe ($6.95) is another filling and pleasant vegan dish, with evenmore flavor.
At lunch and in the café, there’s an excellent sandwich menu. Connoisseurs will compare the muffaletta with the version at All-Star Sandwich Bar in Inman Square, as well as to the New Orleans original. I had a prosciutto, mozzarella, and artichoke panini ($7.95), and it came perfectly grill-marked from a real panini iron, hot and delicious with a curried potato salad (good, but you’ll have a hard time resisting the superior French fries, another Daddy-O’s hallmark).
Some sandwiches are on the dinner menu, but so is Sussman’s country fried chicken ($16.95), the Wursthaus special ($16.95), and a fantastic marinated skirt steak ($16.95). This was one of the tastiest pieces of beef I’ve had in recent memory, all sliced and rare as ordered, with pretty solid Cal-Mex black beans, rice, and a hunk of avocado. The steak came coldto the table, but that was a minor flaw.
The starving-poet special is perhaps the pan-fried tilapia ($14.95): mountains of lentils (a little chewy in the contemporary style), with spinach and tomato, topped with fish. Tilapia are farmed and come as rather small filets, but taste pretty good for fresh-water-farmed fish and stick together when cooked, so they can be pan-fried. They do well with sauce, and Sussman’s aioli, pink with red bell pepper but not overly garlicked, is a contender. Grilled whole rainbow trout ($16.95) is served without the head — this would not happen at a South End bistro — in response to customer concerns. That said, it’s very nicely grilled, with a taste of the fire that seeps into the meaty part of the fish flavor, and comes with a garnish of cress, strawberries (it works), and toasted almonds.
A veal special ($21) was perhaps a little too nostalgic, reminding me of the undercooked wine sauces and excessive salt of the semi-amateur restaurants of the old Harvard Square. The meat was tasty and tender, and there were lots of shitake mushrooms on a risotto that was dark with the same seasonings but flavored with asparagus. There’s also an arugula salad, but winter arugula isn’t worth it. Paul, put this on a white risotto with a little more cheese next time, okay?
For drinks, there’s a list of 10 martinis, all sweetened, as well as a rather good, mostly California, wine list. A glass of 2005 Guenoc sauvignon blanc ($8/glass; $36/bottle) was not as dry as I remember their earlier bottles, but still rather French in style. Coffee ($1.50) is good enough to start an all-nighter, and tea ($1.75) is made correctly, loose-leaf in a metal pot.
Desserts run to comfort food. The brownie à la mode ($4.95) is a good, large brownie with even better vanilla ice cream. Daddy-O’s did a lot with bread pudding, so I jumped on a special of chocolate bread pudding ($4.95). But it turned out to be just like the brownie, except lighter in texture and with real whipped cream. Ice-cream cookie sandwiches ($4.50) are yet another combination of chocolate and vanilla.
Z Cookies ($3.95) are butter, chocolate, and oatmeal cookies, served on a little plate. And Arborio rice pudding ($4.95) is an idea that needs some work, as mine was gritty and heavy. The idea of Arborio rice is that it absorbs a lot of liquid (and hence flavor) in risotto without losing its shape. But the flavor in rice pudding is the stuff between the grains, so it might be better to use ordinary rice. Or to cook more milk into the Arborio for a little longer.
Service at Z Square is pretty good, especially given the youth of both my servers. The atmosphere hasn’t yet reached bohemian, but exam time is coming. So far the lunch crowd is leavened with shoppers and the dinner crowd is more student-ish, but dressed up to drink sweet martinis.
Z Square Restaurant + Bar, 14 Jfk Street, Cambridge | Open Mon–Fri, 8 am–4 pm and 5 pm–midnight; And Sat & Sun, 9 am–4 pm and 5 pm–midnight | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking: $10 | Sidewalk-level access via set-back entrance and elevator to basement dining room | 617.576.0101
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com.