New England Regional | The Tastes of Cambridge
This Old (Red) House
Eclectic fare in an historic Harvard Square home
For most of its 202-year history, the cottage at 98 Winthrop Street has been a private residence. A year ago, Paul Overgaag, owner of the now defunct Giannino in the Charles Hotel courtyard, turned the crimson clapboard home into a notable new dining spot, the Red House.
With its low ceilings, plank floors, working fireplaces, and warren of small spaces (four dining rooms spread over two stories, plus a bar, and a patio), the restaurant retains a homey feel.
It's tough to categorize the cuisine. Red House calls it "Mediterranean and European"; a colleague calls it "Italianish"; earlier reviewers called it "new American" or "American bistro." Perhaps "eclectic" best describes a menu with choices like Asian-style duck breast, pork loin saltimbocca, artichoke linguini, and lobster pot pie.
Visiting the restaurant for lunch and dinner in May, we found slightly amateurish service an acceptable tradeoff for the pleasant surroundings and fine fare.
At lunch, we sampled a soup-and-sandwich combo that included an open-faced grilled rib-eye steak sandwich with peppercorn-mustard aioli and a bowl of three-bean and faro minestrone ($13.95). We also tried Caesar salad with grilled shrimp ($5.95) and the day's soup, a red-pepper bisque ($7.50). We liked it all, but the soups stole the show. The minestrone was fresh and spicy, marred only by two unpitted olives; the bisque was so flavorful that we hope to replicate it at home.
Our dinner visit began with an appetizer of cornmeal-breaded and fried sea scallops over field greens with orange vinaigrette, a perfect marriage of corn and citrus flavors ($9.50). Morel mushrooms in cognac lent a woodland accent to beef tenderloin with broccoli ($19.95). Parsley risotto with seared sea scallops ($18.95) was satisfyingly, but not overwhelmingly, rich, with enough left over for lunch later (risotto is among the few dishes offered in one size; most are available as appetizers or as entrées). We finished with Ultimate Chocolate Cake ($5.50), a concoction that, quite simply, deserves its name.
Our sole complaint: the service, which seemed as uneven as the house's slanting floors. A too-attentive lunch waitress asked a half-dozen times whether everything was okay. The dinner waiter took our drink order, then pushed us to decide on our entire meal at once; we would have preferred to proceed course by course. When our appetizer arrived 20 minutes later, we were still waiting for drinks.
We sat in one of the three tiny dining rooms (also available by reservation for groups of eight to 12), which are cozier than the 55-seat main area. Be warned, we found it a little too intimate: because of the close quarters, we shared the experiences of a neighboring table, where a first date seemed to be going badly. But none of that will keep us from revisiting this old house in its welcome new role.
~A.S. and C.R.