Shallow-poached West Coast halibut at Bergamot


Photo: JOEL VEAK

As a restaurant hunter, I don't always find neighborhood distinctions helpful. To me, downtown Boston embraces everything within five miles of the State House, and so includes many neighborhoods outside the city limits. While good food doesn't recognize borough boundaries, there are some obvious areas of concentrated strength. Eastie has an embarrassment of riches in Latin American restaurants. Chinatown, it will surprise no one, is bounteously endowed with worthy Asian places. And Cambridge and Somerville seem to attract more than their share of chef-owned spots with terrific food and a distinctly unstuffy attitude.

Bergamot (118 Beacon Street, Somerville, 617.576.7700), which sits a literal stone's throw from the Cambridge border, is one such independent, where the food is decidedly more dressed up than the patrons. Its idiom is New American with an emphasis on the seasonal and local (still a great idea, however overhyped). The room is one large space with a high ceiling, an open kitchen, and exposed ductwork and other structural bones: it's loud at prime time. Arty, dimmed chandeliers, taupe-toned décor, tea lights on the tables, and cushy banquette seating combine to soften the overall effect. The small bar, seeded by talent from Camberville's growing corps of nerdily obsessive craft bartenders, produces excellent cocktails. Service from the host stand to the service waiters is polished and solicitous without feeling formal. And the kitchen's ethos is revealed in small, fine details: the amuse-bouche that tops a house-made potato chip with harissa-spiced fromage blanc, the honey and coarse sea salt in the excellent butter accompanying the bread, the quality Luxardo cherry at the base of a well-made Manhattan, the meal-ending white-chocolate mignardise unexpectedly flavored with passionfruit.

An appetizer of salmon pastrami ($11) offers a clever take on familiar brined-and-smoked salmon, serving it with house-made brown bread, squiggles of celery jam, sweet Devonshire cream, and crouton-like cubes of toasted honey-mustard meringue. An entrée of shallow-poached West Coast halibut ($28) especially reflects the compositional care and balance that is chef Keith Pooler's hallmark: a gorgeous cod fillet, ever-so-gently cooked through to exquisite tenderness, nestles on a bed of spring-fresh English peas dotted with cubes of roasted red pepper. Shucked Woodbury littleneck clams from Wellfleet and house-cured guanciale provide two forms of salty counterpoint amidst a pool of golden broth; microgreens form a regal purplish crown. Bergamot's kind of meticulous refinement in a relaxed setting - beautiful togs, but with the tie loosened, the top button undone - is a hugely popular sensibility on this side of the Charles, and quite possibly a bellwether for the future of fine dining in Boston.