Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Area Four, Cambridge, MA

Area Four is (mostly) a pizza place in Cambridge, MA.  They have won several "Best of Boston" awards, have been on Food Network and Cooking Channel, and are known for their commitment to sustainable sourcing, quality ingredients, and not taking shortcuts.

I said "mostly" a pizza place, because the space is really two establishments, one is a coffee shop with pastries and the like, the other, the pizza parlor.  The pizza place is open for lunch and dinner daily, and brunch on weekends, and features a big wood fired oven in the center.  I didn't get a chance to experience brunch, but those items are also baked in the oven, like an incredible sounding baked french toast with bourbon, fruit, and pecans and a bunch of dishes called "messes", which are eggs and other goodies cooked in skillets in the wood oven.

My visit was for dinner, with a group of 8, including children.  Which might start to explain why I was at a pizza place, as, well, pizza is never really at the top of my list of cuisines, particularly when I have a limited amount of time in a city (unless I'm waffling it of course!).  But, we needed somewhere that could seat 8, was child friendly, and near our office in Cambridge.  Area Four seemed like a natural fit, as it gets great reviews for the food, and the kids would like it too.

So, how was it?  Meh.

Service wasn't particularly good, and the pacing of the food was pretty bad.  We ordered two starters, two salads, and 4 pizzas for the group, all of which arrived within 5 minutes of each other.  The timing of the initial items was fine, pretty fast after we ordered, but it really would have been nice to enjoy the starters before the onslaught of pizzas arrived.  And then, after we ordered dessert, it took 30 minutes for the dessert to come.  I had honestly started to believe they had forgotten it, and, such a long wait wasn't exactly child-friendly.  30 minutes for dessert, at a casual joint, is just too much.

Besides just the poor timing, we also weren't really well taken care of.  After our dessert order went in, our table was only half-cleared.  Some of the pizza stands were left behind, bits of food and wrappers were left behind, it was just a mess.  The napkins were all removed and replacements never brought.  At least we had water jugs on the table so we didn't need someone to fill our glasses.

Overall, it was a fine choice for the occasion, but I don't think I'd return.  If I did, it would be for basically just one thing: dessert.  The pizza was fairly lackluster, but, the dessert quite delicious.

The Setting

Area Four is located near Kendall Square in Cambridge, just a few blocks down from our office, alongside a park (in an area I think known as technology park).
Outside Seating.
During the pleasant time of year, Area Four has substantial seating out front and along the side.  It was a beautiful evening when we visited, and I wished we were able to sit outside, but, our group was too large for those tables, they were mostly groups of two or four.
High Table.
The space inside was a mix of standard tables and high tables.  Groups ranged from pairs to large groups of 8 or 10.  We were a group of 8 and had a collection of smaller tables pushed together.

Tables were pretty basic, casual, wooden tops, with noisy metal chairs.

The walls were decorated with permanent chalkboards noting their principles of good ingredients, sustainability, etc.

There was also a bar area and the main focal point was the pizza ovens in the middle of the room.  It is a fairly big space, and, a loud one.  Perhaps it was just due to our group size, but I couldn't hear anyone at the other end of the table, and spent the whole night unable to really participate in conversation.  I don't think the concrete floors and metal chairs helped with sound dampening.
Dry Goods: Not the bathroom.
Our place settings were white plates, cloth napkins with a fork and huge knife, and water glass.  Water carafes were brought to the table so we could serve ourselves more water as we wanted.  I thought the knives were crazy, until we got the pizza, and I realized they were necessary.

There were a lot of doors leading out of the main dining area.  Clearly, people often assume they lead to bathrooms, as they are all marked that they are explicitly NOT the bathroom.

The first door I saw said "Dry Goods (not the bathroom...)"  I thought it was mildly funny, until I saw more doors.
Office: Also not the bathroom.
The next one was better, the office, marked as "... also not the bathroom".  I laughed out loud when I saw that one.
Emergency Exit: Definitely not the bathroom
But the best was the the emergency exit to the outside, or, "definitely not the bathroom."

I thought these were all a cute, fun touch.
Salt, Pepper, Red Pepper Flakes.
On each table was a selection of condiments: salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, all in cute little jars.  I expected oregano or parmesan cheese shakers too, but, this was it.  I don't think any of us used the seasonings, but, I appreciated the cute jars.

Savory Food

Simple Menu.
The menu is not large, consisting of "Not Pizza" and "Pizza".  Besides pizza, there was exactly one type of salad, one soup, a few appetizers (ribs, spreads and pita, garlic knots), sides (roasted zucchini, papas bravas, or mushrooms), and a few random entrees (chicken, arctic char, mac and cheese).  The pizza selection was 10 pizzas, along with a special of the day.  And that was it.

Pizza is clearly the focus, and every table ordered it.  Area Four does one thing different with their pizza than most ... they use sourdough as the base.  This might raise alarm bells for you if you've been a reader of my blog for a while.  You might realize how I feel about sourdough.  Yup, I hate it.  So when I saw the proclamation "12-year-old starter + flour + water + salt. No oil or sugar. Ever. Over 30 hours of fermentation. Handcrafted cheese. 1 wood-fire oven. Simplicity at it’s best.", let's just say my heart kinda sunk.  How did I not pick up on that fact when reading the reviews?

Still, I pressed on.  We ordered a few salads since I knew the others value their greens, some garlic knots as they are the items people rave about (even more than the pizzas), and of course,  pizzas.  Our server told us that each small pizza serves one person, which turned out to be totally misleading.  We had way too much pizza, and wound up with 1.5 full pizzas extra at the end of the night that nobody wanted.  And sadly, I was traveling, so I couldn't bring it home to waffle!
City Grower's Mixed Greens.  $12.
"Fennel, Radish, Apple, Carrot, Almonds, Manchego & Lemon Vinaigrette."

We started with salad, because I had read good reviews about the salads and I knew the others like to eat healthier.

I can't say I understand the reviews at all.  It was just a salad.  Generic mixed greens, sliced fennel, shredded carrots and apple, chunks of radish, shaved manchego cheese, and chunks of almond.  I guess the different cuts were kinda interesting, and I appreciated the crunch from the almond, but, really, there was nothing remarkable about this salad, and it is the only kind on the menu.

The dressing was a very tangy lemon vinaigrette, too tangy, and too lemony for my tastes.  I didn't really like anything about this salad, and wouldn't get it again.
Garlic Knots (3). $6.
"Red Sauce, Pecorino, Crispy Garlic & Gremolata."

Next came an order of garlic knots, the item I had read the most rave reviews about.  Even more than the pizza really.  Garlic knots are available plain, with red sauce on the side as pictured here, or smothered with cheese sauce.  Both get great reviews, and seemed really different, so, we opted for an order of each.

They were served in a basket on a piece of parchment paper, with the tomato sauce on the side.  The knots were fresh from the oven and warm, with some cheese, garlic, and herbs on top.  I liked how they had a toasted exterior.  They were pleasantly doughy inside.

But ... I could taste the sourdough.  Yup, the knots were also made from the same dough as the pizza, and thus, sourdough.

I dunked mine in the sauce to try to mask the sourdough, which helped a little.  The sauce was tangy, good tomato sauce, served warm.

Overall, these were fine, but fairly boring, and, well, too sourdoughy.  Like the salad, I didn't see anything particularly noteworthy about them.

The plain garlic knots came 3 to an order, a reasonable portion for $6, and easy enough for us to share.
Supreme Knots (5). $13.
"5 Knots in Red Sauce, Covered in Melted Cheese."

I really had my eyes on the supreme knots though.  These were served in a skillet, a huge mound of 5 of the knots, covered in the tangy tomato sauce, and then absolutely smothered in cheese.  I mean, seriously, look at that mountain of garlic knots!

I eagerly dove into this, expecting it to be the item of the night for me.  It was really hard to serve, as the cheese was really thick, stringy, and hard to get through.  Undeterred, I cut off a chunk of a knot, severed the strings of cheese going everywhere, and dug in, leaving the others to deal with extracting chunks themselves.

I liked this MUCH more than the plain knots.  The red sauce soaked into the knots since it was put on before the cheese and then it was all baked together, so it kinda made the bread soggy, like a bread pudding, where it touched.  This might not sound like a good thing, but, I did like how it really soaked up the sauce, and it created a textural difference where the soggy saucy bits were versus the crispy bits without sauce.

Like the plain knots, the garlic flavor was strong, and I apreciated all the extra herbs.  Very good flavors.

But the star of the show here was the cheese.  I think it was mozzarella.  It was melty, it was stringy, and it was a perfect combo with the tangy red sauce.

This was basically pizza, just, in a more fun form.  I suspect it is the same dough, the same red sauce, the same cheese.  Just here, the bread component is more doughy, and there is tons of garlic and herbs.

Overall, this was pretty tasty, and a bit more of a unique dish.  It was my favorite savory item of the night, and I'd get it again, but, I really wish it wasn't sourdough.  I could still taste way too much sourdough, even through all the other great flavors.

The portion of 5 knots for this was a bit odd compared to the 3 for the regular knots.  With all the cheese on this, it was not a light item, and I really don't think anyone would want more than one full knot out of here, so, you needed a large party to split this with.  Why not offer as only 3 like the plain knots?
Small Hawaiian (front) $16.50.  Small Margherita (back). $13.
Moments after the garlic knots were delivered, so were the first pizzas.  Our table was full within seconds.  And it was all hot food, quickly getting cold.  This made me pretty upset, as I wanted to have the time to enjoy the garlic knots without rushing to eat the rapidly cooling pizzas.

I didn't pick any of the pizza, since I knew they had sourdough crust, and I was mostly planning to fill up on garlic knots and dessert.  The others picked 4 pizzas: Hawaiian, clam and bacon, the special of the day, plus a simple pizza for the kids.  None of these are the pizzas I would have picked, and I almost spoke up, suggesting the ones I thought sounded better, like the "Not Pepperoni" with sopressata and pecorino, or the sausage and banana pepper, or even the white anchovy.  I was also tempted by the caramelized onion with onion sauce, candied walnuts, and green onions.  But, since I wasn't planning to eat much pizza, I let them make all the decisions.

None of the pizzas were well cut, and everyone struggled removing slices.  No wonder they provided us with the massive knives?

"A4 Mozzarella, Tomato, Ham, Cilantro & Scallions, Roasted Pineapple Salsa."

Of the pizzas we ordered, the Hawaiian sounded the best, so I took a small slice.  I was not impressed.  The crust was soggy, perhaps from all the moisture from the pineapple chunks.  It was hard to pick up a slice without it flopping all over the place.

The pineapple "salsa" just seemed to be chunks of I guess roasted pineapple, soft, and sweet.  The ham was slices, a bit salty, a nice contrast to the sweet fruit.  Tangy red sauce was under this all and there was way too much cilantro on top.

Overall, pretty lackluster.  Only 2 slices total of this were eaten, as no one wanted it.  I'm not sure why they ordered it.

"A4 Mozzarella, Tomato, Pecorino & Basil."

The margherita was for the kids, just a basic cheese pizza.  The little girl, who I've never really seen interested in food, single handedly took down a couple slices of it.  She asked for more and more, again, something I had never seen from her.  It must have been good for a kid's palette!

"Clam Sauce, Pecorino, Hot Pepper & Parsley."

Not pictured is the clam and bacon, the top pick of one diner.  Others also raved about it, so I tried a bite, even though I really don't tend to like clams and this sounded, and looked, totally unappetizing to me.  And ... yeah, super chewy clams, in a fishy white sauce.  I wanted to spit it out.  They all liked it though and it was the only pizza to get finished, so, clearly I was the outlier.
Small Special. $16.
The final pizza was the daily special.  I did not hear the description of it, it was not on the menu, and I didn't even realize we were ordering it until someone threw it onto our order at last minute, so I can't tell you what it was exactly.  I think it was topped with a garlic white sauce, slices of zucchini, spinach, pecorino, and lemon wedges (presumably to drizzle over it?)

Again, I didn't like the crust, but, the zucchini was nicely cooked and I liked how crispy the spinach was on top.  There was some interesting flavor at least to this.  The lemon wedges were super random.

The Sweet Stuff

The dessert menu, titled "The Sweet Stuff" was very small.  It had two items on it: a seasonal crisp or fresh baked cookies.  Of course, I had done my research, and knew that these "cookies" were not really cookies in the traditional sense.  They are skillet cookies, aka, cookie dough baked in a cast iron skillet in the wood oven, served piping hot and ooey gooey.  While I don't like cookies, these don't really count as cookies in my book.  And what's better, each "cookie" comes with a sauce, but, you can also opt to add a scoop of daily ice cream from Toscanini's, arguably the best ice cream in Boston.  Oh, and they are huge.

So, yes, cookies, but warm, and with quality ice cream?  I had my eyes on these before we even arrived.  Of course I saved room for dessert.
Sweet Stuff Menu.
Our choices for "cookies" were chocolate macadamia nut with chocolate sauce, peanut butter oat with caramel, and butterscotch chocolate chip with caramel.  The daily ice cream choices were vanilla, strawberry, or salty caramel.  The crisp was rhubarb.  Since we knew the desserts were large, we opted to double up, two people per dessert

One child and adult pair went for the chocolate macadamia.  I was too far away to snap a photo, but it looked like a chocolatey delight, topped with chocolate sauce, and they added on vanilla ice cream.  It was devoured quickly.

My partner's first instinct was the peanut butter oat, which I would have gladly gone for, but I also suggested the butterscotch chocolate chip, so we went for that instead.  I opted for salted caramel ice cream, because I really love having cold ice cream with warm desserts, although my fellow diner was inclined to get it without.

Finally, a few others wanted the rhubarb crisp.  I adore fruit crisps, particularly hot and fresh ones, but, I loathe rhubarb, so I was pretty sad it was the seasonal crisp on offer.

As I mentioned earlier, desserts took a very, very long time to arrive.  During the wait, our table was only half cleared, we still had pizza stands and lots of chunks of food laying around.  At one point, someone came and took away all the napkins and replacements were never brought.  I thought our dessert was forgotten, until a while later, when someone brought out a plate with 9 spoons on it (there was 8 of us).  Finally, literally, 35 minutes later, our desserts arrived.

They were worth it.  Incredible.  Highlight of the meal, by far.
Fresh Baked Butterscotch Chocolate Chip Cookie with Caramel Sauce. $7.  Salty Caramel Ice Cream. $2.
"Fresh Wood Fired Cookie."

OMG, OMG, OMG.  That is basically all I have to say about this.  Ok, if I have to pick three other words, they would be: gooey, hot, yum.

The "cookies" are served in round cast iron skillets with handles, still super hot, fresh out of the oven.

It was as ooey-gooey as I hoped it would be.  It was sweet and buttery.  I didn't actually taste butterscotch, but I didn't mind.  It did have plentiful chocolate chips.

The caramel sauce on top was almost too much sweet for me, and I sorta wished it wasn't there.  The cookie was sweet, the ice cream was sweet, and the sauce just pushed it over the top.

The ice cream was great, it had a touch of saltiness to it, but otherwise was sweet caramel.  It was smooth and creamy.  I see why people love Toscaninis.

I thought the ice cream was necessary to compliment the warm goo and the sweetness, but my fellow diner said it was fine without.  I think the cookie and just the caramel would have been a bit much, I would have at least wanted whipped cream, if I wasn't getting the ice cream.  But really, the ice cream was perfect.

I really liked this, and we easily devoured it.  It was hard for me to share bites with the others who wanted to try it.  It was all I could do to stop myself from saying "no", and meaning it.  It was all I could do to stop myself from not even letting my companion have his portion (I'm pretty certain he didn't get close to half anyway).

I'd clearly get this again, and would also like to try that peanut butter one.
Rhubarb Crisp. $7.
"Almond oat crumble, topped with whipped sweet cream and salted caramel sauce."

As I said, I hate rhubarb, but I love fruit crisps.  And, I'll be honest, this looked pretty good.  Seriously, look at that mound of whipped cream!

When it was clear that this dessert wasn't going to get finished by the others, I tried a bite.  And ... it was even worse than I expected.  Not only was it rhubarb, it had tons of orange flavor.  I hate orange in desserts!

I can't really judge this fairly since I dislike the main flavors, but, it was a hot fresh crisp, and the topping was crispy and generous.
Area Four Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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