When someone invokes Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage, it’s often in the context of annoyance or inconvenience. For many of us, Puritans are synonymous with blue laws, antiquated zoning regulations, and idiosyncratic rules about the sale and consumption of alcohol. Anytime we encounter a local or state ordinance that inhibits our freedom to engage in some pleasurable pursuit, we have a tendency to point our fingers at our stern, colonial-era forebears and their infamous zealotry. It may be unfair to blame the Puritans for the arbitrary vestiges of conservatism that infect our collective mind set, but make no mistake – these people were the enemies of fun. Theirs was a no-nonsense culture characterized by strict piety and a hearty intolerance of anything that didn’t accord with their religious principles. Puritan life was short on TGIF moments, since weekend festivities were prohibited. No such thing as Christmas cheer, either; the Puritans banned the popular holiday. Drinking in moderation got the Puritan stamp of approval, but drunkenness was harshly punished (I’m sure I’d spend half my days in the stocks). We won’t even get into the Salem witch trials.
The curtain closed on American Puritan culture about three centuries ago, and today stodginess and dogmatism are hardly the qualities that a restaurant or bar would wish to promote. Which makes “Puritan & Company” a curious choice of name for a contemporary eatery in Cambridge’s Inman Square.
Puritan & Company features classic American cuisine interpreted through a modern lens, with an emphasis on locally sourced and independent products. The restaurant’s moniker may evoke religious settlers and their rejection of pleasure, but its true roots are not quite so antiquated – the Puritan Cake Company, a full-service bakery, stood in this same location from the 1930s through the 1950s. Some of the bakery’s infrastructure remains; the ramp leading up from the front door was once used for wheeling baked goods down to delivery trucks parked outside on Cambridge Street.
And while the staff doesn’t dress in somber colors and won’t rebuke you for enjoying yourself, the restaurant does embrace some Puritan values. Just as extravagance was anathema to the Puritans, the eponymous restaurant thrives on a refreshing sense of simplicity.
The décor is one of an “urban farmhouse” – bright and modern, but unadorned. Skylights bathe the hardwood floor and exposed brick walls with natural light, giving the space a country-like, almost outdoorsy feel.
Vintage cabinetry and hanging lights encased in mason jars add to the historical complexion.
The main bar has a plain white surface and 12 comfortable chairs.
In the rear is a six-seat charcuterie bar, which saw a reboot in time for Puritan’s spring menu and now serves amaro flights in addition to fancy meats.
That sense of calculated reserve extends to Puritan’s cocktail program, starting with the unassuming glassware – drinks are served in either a very basic tumbler or a tall glass that looks a bit like a mason jar. Bartender Colin Kiley explains that the drink program has been evolving over the past year. When Puritan & Company first opened in 2012, their liquor license only allowed for beer and wine. The license was later expanded, but Colin admits that coming up with the drink menu at that point was like “repairing a car that someone’s driving.”
Wisely, they opted to keep things fairly simple and to create drinks that complemented the restaurant’s modest décor. Even the garnishes are understated, as is the case with the Up from the South cocktail. Combining Zucca mezcal, blood orange shrubb, pineapple-clove simple syrup, and lime juice, a malted salt “garnish” is simple but effective.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Colin says of the cocktail program. He’s playfully dismissive of offbeat ingredients (specifically mentioning kumquat) and favors a minimalist approach. “If it doesn’t need anything…” he says with a shrug, content to let quality ingredients and smart combinations do most of the work.
The Kingston Negroni stands as a representative example. A simple but thoughtful interpretation of the Negroni, it combines locally made Privateer rum, Aperol, and vermouth, with the sweetness of the rum balancing the bitter components.
Of the Paper Plane, Colin says “if [the drink list] were an album, this would be one of our covers.” Attributed to Sam Ross of Attaboy in New York, this mix of bourbon, Nonino amaro, and lemon juice is a straightforward cocktail in which each ingredient somehow brings out the most subtle notes of every other ingredient.
This interplay of flavors is not only central to Puritan’s cocktails but designed to interact with the food program. “We try to keep the drinks as food-friendly as possible,” Colin explains. “We’re a restaurant with a bar,” he says; not the other way around.
Puritan’s menu features dishes that would be familiar to any native New Englander, though even some of the most traditional recipes are transformed. The soft-shell crab isn’t blended into a typical crab cake but instead has a crispy exterior. Red jalapeño gribiche and succotash make for a sweet, spicy dish.
For those unfamiliar with Giannone chicken, it refers to a method of chilling fresh chicken using icy cold air instead of water. Pioneered by a farm north of Montreal, Quebec, the technique is said to inhibit bacteria and, ultimately, result in meat that is uniquely tender and moist. That’s certainly the case with Puritan’s Giannone chicken. Accompanied by artichoke, asparagus, and farro, the chicken is full of flavor and fork-tender beneath a crispy, buttery skin.
One item long absent from Puritan and Company’s menu was a burger. Which is not to say that a burger was unavailable. Debuting as a special and then retreating into the shadows as a “secret” item available to guests at the bar, Puritan’s patty melt has emerged from obscurity and can now be found on the bar and brunch menus. While many Boston-area burgers are lauded for their increasing complexity – think stuffed patties, unconventional toppings, buns infused with herbs or bacon – this rendition is like pure New England nostalgia on a plate.
Puritan’s patty melt is a generous slab of dry-aged ground beef served between two slices of grilled, house-made rye bread, with Swiss and American cheeses oozing out of the sides and a spicy homemade sauce on top. No sooner was it placed before me that I was reminded of the pan-fried burgers that my mom used to make back in our East Boston apartment when I was a kid. And while that may be a personal memory, the presentation is meant to conjure a certain wistfulness – as Colin notes, the patty melt recalls the sort of burger you’d get at a classic diner or a Friendly’s. Even the name is something of a throwback; how many people call it a patty melt these days?
Reinforcing the bar’s intent to design food-friendly drinks, Colin offered to make a cocktail that would pair well with this splendid burger. His variation of an East India Cocktail fit the bill. Made with Armagnac (a robust brandy that he referred to as “cognac’s country cousin”), Plantation 5-year rum, pineapple-clove syrup, lime, and angostura bitters, it was a bold yet refreshing drink with prominent notes of orange and a touch of spice.
Less deliberate but still effective, the Thaw in the Straw cocktail is a good partner for the pineapple brown sugar cake. Made with bourbon, honey, lemon, and ginger beer, the Thaw in the Straw is an odd mix of tartness and sweetness.
On its own, I can’t say I loved it. With dessert? Different story.
Evoking the Caribbean via New England, the pineapple brown sugar cake combines lime curd, graham caramel corn, and coconut-lime sorbet. It’s an intriguing mix of textures, with the crunchy popcorn offsetting the spongy cake. And the sweet, tangy flavors liven up the cocktail, bringing out the spice of the ginger beer and the vanilla notes in the bourbon.
In addition to the not-so-secret patty melt and an ever evolving cocktail list, Puritan & Company has unveiled a few new features to coincide with its spring menu. A six-course chef’s tasting menu, with the particulars changing nightly, is available for a reasonable $70. On Saturdays, the space next door to the restaurant becomes the “Puritan Meat Market.” From noon until 2 p.m., traditional New England lunch items, such as corned beef sandwiches and meatball subs, are available for takeout. And on Sundays, Puritan’s chef de cuisine Alex Saenz creates a southern-themed menu featuring fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and catfish.
Taken together, it’s exactly the sort of innovation and variety that I’m sure the Puritans would have just loved…
Address: 1166 Cambridge Street, Cambridge
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