The thought of eating in a French restaurant might be a little intimidating for the average diner. French cooking techniques have frustrated even the most skillful of chefs. Some restaurant guests struggle to decipher menus that have an unnaturally high concentration of q’s, eux’s, and silent g’s. Even self-professed foodies say non merci to certain French delicacies. A French bistro, on the other hand, is meant to offer a simpler menu in a more casual setting. But still, a Parisian’s definition of casual (pâté de foie and Sauternes) may differ from yours and mine (burger and beer).
That being said, what makes Newton’s Sycamore such a unique place is the way it offers exquisite French cuisine in a decidedly approachable environment. The bistro setting is upscale but unpretentious, and while Sycamore’s menu wouldn’t be out of place among some of the finer restaurants in Boston or Cambridge, the atmosphere is more akin to that of a familiar neighborhood tavern. Exposed brick walls, candles, and soft lighting give the space a sense of comfort and intimacy. The staff are friendly and outgoing, and in the narrow waiting area by the bar, it’s impressive to watch servers bearing plates and glasses as they weave through a Friday night crowd. Many of the guests seem like regulars.
Sycamore’s menu emphasizes seasonal ingredients, and it changes regularly. You may find yourself googling some of the more obscure ingredients (dukkah?), but servers seem more than happy to explain the menu and won’t belittle your woeful pronunciation skills. Still, there are plenty of surprises. I wasn’t sure what Spanish sobrasada was until it showed up. This pâté of cured sausage, spread across crispy grilled bread, is soft, smoky, and spicy.
Pâté may not be for everyone, so warm gougères might seem like a more conventional snack. But these savory pastries are mysterious in their own way. Bursting with the flavors of cheese and egg, you’d think they’d be filled with some gooey dairy product. But when you bite in? Nothing. Empty. Just air and an inexplicable deliciousness.
You can cobble together a satisfying and varied meal from Sycamore’s snacks and starters, but to pass on the duck board is to miss out on a truly exceptional dining experience. Intended for sharing, this signature dish presents duck prepared four ways – roasted, confit, baked, and braised. And with rotating features like duck meatballs and duck pot pie (!!!), it represents the intersection between fine dining and a casual, almost playful presentation.
But nothing contributes more to Sycamore’s relaxed atmosphere than the bar. Led by bar manager Scott Shoer, Sycamore’s cocktail program is modern and progressive, comprising original drinks and inventive twists on the classics.
The Rock & Rye is a traditional Old Fashioned, except it’s infused with sugar, fruit, and a blend of spices. On the night I was there, Sycamore was donating $2 to the Tufts Medical Center Floating Hospital for Children for every Rock & Rye sold. Nothing like imbibing for a good cause.
Named for the town that the Privateer distillery calls home, the Ipswich Sour is made with a blend of Privateer rums, lime juice, almond syrup, and angostura bitters. I thought this might be a Mai Tai-style drink, with its rum and almond components. But it was more robust than that and had an unexpected dryness, though I have no idea what would have given it that character.
The Aviation Variation 2.0 tastes like the pre-Prohibition classic, even if it lacks the cocktail’s signature blue hue. Sycamore’s version uses Tempus Fugit Liqueur de Violettes, a less-sweet style of crème de violette that’s notable for its unusual shade of red. Combined with Berkshire Mountain Distillers gin, lemon, Maraschino liqueur, and elderflower, it’s a floral, dry drink.
The Pablo Honey combines tequila, pear-vanilla shrub, honey-ginger syrup, and lime. This pear-forward cocktail is full of flavor but has a muted sweetness.
As much as I’d like to think the Fall Guy was inspired by the 80s TV show of the same name, I suspect it has more to do with the drink’s autumnal components. Apple cider and canela, a cinnamon liqueur from Mexico, combine with tequila, mezcal, and lemon for a smoky, vibrant, well-rounded cocktail.
One of the upsides of sharing small plates and duck boards is that you aren’t full when it’s time for dessert – and Sycamore’s beignets are a must. Soft and coated with sugar, these sweet pastries are served with warm milk jam, also known as dulce de leche, a rich, caramel-like confection. They seem like a more refined cousin of the famous New Orleans beignets, which have a crunchier exterior and are buried beneath a heaping pile of powdered sugar.
Fresh ginger cake is everything you’d expect from a proper French dessert. It’s rich and decadent, with prominent flavors of ginger, molasses, cinnamon, and vanilla. If that isn’t enough, it’s accompanied by persimmon compote and ginger ice cream.
There are after-dinner drinks as well, like the Revolver. This glass of house cold brew, espresso liqueur, and mole bitters complements all those sweet notes and makes for a splendid conclusion to a satisfying meal.
It’s easy to feel at home here, and I say that having been to Sycamore only once. Something about this place seems refreshingly familiar, which is odd for a restaurant with such a dynamic, unpredictable menu. Part of it, certainly, owes to the warm, personable service.
But I think there’s something to be said for Sycamore being located outside the city. Maybe having a little distance between it and Boston gives Sycamore a certain freedom, especially since there are no other restaurants in Newton Center with such a contemporary approach to fine dining and cocktails. But it’s also a product of its neighborhood – it feels the way a local place should. Sure, you’ll probably want to make a reservation if you’re planning on having dinner. But even on a busy night, you know they’ll do their best to squeeze you in at the bar.
Address: 755 Beacon Street, Newton
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