by Sally Steinberg
American chef Steve Johnson knows what he’s doing. A rendezvous in Central Square is a rendezvous with well-being.
What’s in a name? When it comes to the restaurant Rendezvous in Central Square, a lot. There’s location, the crossroads thing. There’s social resonance, the people thing. There’s the history of Steve Johnson, chef/owner and self-described American “postwar baby boomer.” His French language studies led to an inspirational sojourn in France at age 19, sparking his interest in the French approach to food, as well as his connection with the North African populations of Montpellier, where he stayed for 3 years.
This blend resulted in the meeting in his cuisine–rendezvous again–of the European and North African cultures of the western Mediterranean. Taking off from the Languedoc rusticity of the Montpellier area, hearty, homey cooking featuring the likes of duck and sausages typical of that region, he expanded his inventive repertoire with North African accents, Moroccan spices or preserved lemons. Cuisine and locale, gastronomy and geography, are equal partners in the meet-in-the-middle concept that characterizes Rendezvous. France and North Africa and America meet here, where there is also a meeting of styles refined and rustic. The deceptively simple name tells many stories.
As the website announces, this is “rendezvous” spelled a l’anglaise. They’ve illustrated the definition with French and English dictionary entries, two cultures, plus or minus the hyphen, a meeting in a name. “Rendezvous, the name, suited the location, with Central Square viewed as a convenient meeting place for people from different points, with a wink to my history in language. The idea was Rendezvous in Central Square, if you are looking to spend time with friends or family having a meal. It works,” says Steve.
There couldn’t be a better location for the quintessential rendezvous than Mass. Ave., Central Square, right smack in mid-bustle and blare. Central Square is Everywheresville, with its hullabaloo, its whole world eateries. In any direction you see the tangible artifacts of the meeting of cultures, and you also hear the languages and accents from fellow pedestrians.
Steve has availed himself of the offerings of these cultures by tapping the markets and purveyors of ingredients that –yes—rendezvous the European Mediterranean and North Africa, New England local and international exotic, Languedoc and Morocco, sophisticated and earthy. The menu shows off local organic Rhode Island squid and house-made Moroccan spice mix that gets rubbed on chicken. It’s also a great spot for the meeting of minds of the universities around and for residents of greater Boston. As Steve says, it’s central to everything in Boston and easy to find. People meet there, cultures meet there. And now they all eat there.
Without the food and atmosphere created by its presiding spirit, Rendezvous would be just another Central Square storefront, part of the honky tonk blather of the main artery running from Boston to Cambridge. It does not announce itself as an oasis by its façade–it blends with the storefronts around. That may change soon when the façade gets a face lift. But for now you have to know it’s there. You have to know that inside there’s garbure and harissa, and that the products meld the best of local bounty with flashes of Eastern bazaars and markets.
Steve Johnson has made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, a favorite watering hole from a former Burger King, now a magnet for foodies and brainiacs, in the midst of the streaming throngs coursing down Mass. Ave. Before you go in you see the sign, a vestigial remain of the former occupant, Burger King. The sign is yellow, the color of happiness. It says Rendezvous in Central Square, and that’s the point.
Everyone knows it used to be a Burger King, and they say so. Johnson says, “People look for similarities and visual vestiges of the previous space. That’s how the mind works.” Although it’s nothing to do with its former incarnation, there is a certain cachet that comes out in people’s allusions to Burger King that is not a bad thing. Look what we can do, it seems to say. Look what can happen here when someone with vision transforms dross into gold. The people will appreciate its metamorphosis, the rendezvous of Burger King and Rendezvous in Central Square. And that’s what happened.
As you enter, there’s what a poetic visitor calls a “murmur,” like the one in the piazza in Siena, the low hum of conversation, not loud but animated and good-natured. Johnson calls the place “casual fine dining.” It doesn’t look fancy, and it doesn’t look like the lavender and baby blue precinct that preceded it. There’s warm wood, a glass ceiling at the front, low golden light to match the murmur, an aura of contentment.
The food is in the same key, refined comfort. It has its own idiom, idiosyncratic but not outré. The meatballs, for example, come in a broth, no tomatoes, not meatball cliche. They are savory, with maitake mushrooms for good measure, and kale and toasted orecchiette, literally “little ears” that Steve saw in the kitchen of a mom-and-pop restaurant in Italy. He searched for years to give them their rightful place. “The toasted orecchiette I saw on a trip to Puglia, Italy, in 1994. I’m a tinkerer–after 15 years the toasted orecchiette found its full expression in this meatball dish.” Heel of the boot of Italy meets Cambridge neighborhood.
Salad with cheddar and spicy nuts draws people in, so does the lemon buttermilk pudding puddled in dark purple huckleberry ooze, half soufflé, half custard. Steve’s is a cuisine of studied rusticity and casual refinement. Rustic but soigné, the French might say. The food is not too refined, not too plain. The noise level is just about right too, not too loud and not too hushed. It’s a feel-good restaurant.
Johnson has seized the moment and the location and has made Rendezvous essential to the dining life of the carnival/bazaar that is Central Square, straddling the line between comfort and elegance, neighborhood and world. The décor and lighting are unobtrusive until you notice that they make you feel good. You realize how comfortable the banquettes are and how you can actually hear your dinner companions. This has to be a good thing.
This American guy knows what he’s doing. A rendezvous here is a rendezvous with well-being.
In addition to being very American, Steve, 53, is very Cambridge. He’s smart and articulate. He cares about people. And he has a funky streak. High over the bar is a stuffed animal he says is from an 80s TV show, and under his lower lip is a micro-beard. He thought Rendezvous up and he’s thought it through—the chronology of the organization of his day and week, the use of materials from the stained concrete of the bar to the sink for scrubbing dishes.
“I cook a lot. My method of organization for myself is that I spend time in the kitchen every day, teaching and monitoring and guaranteeing consistency, butchering. At 5 I put on a little bit nicer shirt and keep an eye on the dining room as well as on the flow from the kitchen. I also run the kitchen 2 nights a week.”
Steve is a local Cambridgeport resident, and he set out specifically to create a Central Square restaurant “for strategic, geographical, and business plan reasons,” after he left the Blue Room, which he helped to put on the map. He scoured the neighborhood for a location for a long time.
“One fine day after a couple of years I saw that Burger King had left and there was a handwritten For Rent sign in the window. We opened in 2005. It worked out for my concept here. If I showed you a picture of the Burger King you would be stunned—it was a total makeover.” He organized the purchase and installation of Rendezvous, corralling friends to help with the gutting and rebuilding and design. The photos up now are by a friend, also a local. He curates the art himself, he’s the decider on keeping and discarding, so he kept the yellow neon sign and put his logo on it.
He describes his background as a Midwestern and Southern “postwar baby boomer” food background–born in central Ohio, brought up in North Carolina and Virginia. His track took him from French language and literature studies in college to Montpellier in 1976, where he came into contact with flavors of that part of France. “I was surprised and fascinated by what I saw. That was the root of my culinary inspiration.”
Then he set out to work in kitchens “where I could understand and recreate all those flavors. I worked in 20 different bakeries and restaurants from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia, to California to Vermont.” At the time, culinary schools were starting to become the accepted pathway for chefs. Steve’s childhood friend was Chris Schlesinger of East Coast Grill. “I had a catering business in Vermont. When Chris opened East Coast Grill, I felt the pull of being in the hub of New England restaurant cooking.”
Then he got a call from Gordon Hamersley about a job at Hamersley’s Boston restaurant, so he closed the catering business and moved to Boston to work as a line cook and sous-chef at Hamersley’s Bistro from 1988-94.
“Gordon Hamersley had a similar experience to mine, he was an English major and didn’t go to cooking school. We had an affinity. It was hands-on. Hamersley was doing the exact kind of thing I was trying to do, this kind of rustic French cooking that he is well-known for. That was the heart of my cooking while I was at Hamersley. Then I investigated resources here in Boston, Middle Eastern stores and Asian and Indian, diversifying. I practiced a diverse cuisine at the Blue Room, and when I opened Rendezvous, I decided to focus on the flavors of the western Mediterranean. That brought me back to the original experience in France and Spain and Italy and to the North African population there.”
From 1996-2003 he was at the Blue Room as part owner and chef. “It was a successful partnership. They were great years, the reviews were great, we got Best of Boston, and a James Beard nomination. That was a stepping stone for me in the move from partnership to sole ownership.”
Lack of pretense is one of Steve’s recurring phrases. Rendezvous is not a design-to-the-nines kind of place—either in décor or food. Materials are dark wood and simple banquettes, photo portraits of local luminaries from the academic and art worlds. The style is not arty and self-conscious, not precious or fussy, not trying too hard to impress. Nevertheless it is carefully put together to please.
“We wanted to build a place that was comfortable and inviting and hospitable, comfortable in a physical way, with wood and fabrics and colors that are pleasing to the eye.” Similarly, his duck three ways doesn’t announce itself by a fancy architectural construction on the plate. It just is, for the tasting. What you see is what you taste, and it tastes good.
Steve says all the reviews highlighted it, which he hadn’t anticipated. “For us it was just another dish, but sometimes things take on a life of their own and happily so. When the ‘Globe’ review came out, the full top half of the crease was a photo of that dish. People would come in the next week or 2 years later and say, I’m here for that duck.”
He says that a favorite of his is the Rhode Island squid appetizer with rice, cooked with lobster stock and squid ink. “It’s a New England restaurant chef’s version of a dish you might see in a tapas restaurant in Barcelona. The quality and freshness of Rhode Island squid and the flavor combination and the squid ink itself are unique to this restaurant. You would not get this down the block.” All the dishes in the restaurant are Steve’s. “I’m not sure anybody has really invented anything in cooking. The lemon buttermilk pudding is an adaptation of a recipe that I saw in Australian Vogue magazine about 15 years ago. The sauce is my own doing.”
But people come first, Steve says. The restaurant is full, and the crowd looks happy and well-tended to and engaged in the business of the evening, casual fine dining and the talk that goes with it.
“The best part of my job is the people. I’m a cook at heart, and no matter how far I go in this business, I’m a cook. A lot of what drives cooks is the connection it makes with people. It’s about giving pleasure to others through food. This is a people business, whether it’s the cook working beside you in the kitchen, or the staff and the clients. We are a people-oriented restaurant and we try to do right by our guests.”
The guests are from MIT and Harvard and the biomedical research and pharmaceutical companies, or staff from other restaurants “seeing what we are up to. Weekends it’s folks from all around Boston who dine out in restaurants. We have good relations with concierges in hotels so we benefit from tourism. My idea was to balance the client base, not just depend upon high finance.”
He says, “Our guests have evolved over time. Many are without pretense, and they are congenial. We encourage that clientele to come through the door.”
Sally Levitt Steinberg is a writer, journalist and oral/personal historian. She has written several books, including “The Donut Book”, the world’s definitive book of everything-you-need-to-know about donuts. It was chosen twice as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it has been featured in all the media, including NPR, the Martha Stewart radio shows, and the film “Donut Crazy” for the Travel Channel, and its materials form The National Donut Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
She has written a biography, “The Book of Joy,” as well as several personal histories and a book on interior design. Her essay, “Coffin Couture,” was cited as the best piece in the recent anthology of personal history, “My Words Are Gonna Linger.” She has written articles for many publications, including “The New York Times,” “The Boston Globe,” and “The New Yorker.” She lives in Boston.