ONE MASSACHUSETTS RESTAURANT SERVES AS INCUBATOR FOR GRANDER EXPERIMENTS IN FOOD.
By Poornima Apte
IT’S A LAB! IT’S AN ART GALLERY! It’s a restaurant!
It’s Cafe ArtScience: Culture Lab and Cafe. The trendy dining establishment in Cambridge does indeed check off all those boxes—and then some.
The white decor, which some might label antiseptic, delivers a futuristic vibe. Dotted with contemporary works of art—including a moving magnet waterfall-like contraption that resembles the adult equivalent of an Etch A Sketch—the dining space features carefully arranged seating. Unlike many other restaurants these days, especially in a sought-after location like Cambridge, you’re refreshingly not within whispering distance of strangers.
The bar, housed under what looks like an inverted, sawed-off beehive, churns out spectacular cocktails named after endangered or threatened species. Case in point: The Elephant, a combination of clarified coconut, pineapple and Plantation 3-Star Rum. The drink comes with a whimsical garnish clipped to the glass rim: a picture of a pineapple printed on edible rice paper using edible ink, which can be dropped in for additional fruit flavor. The bar is also a crucible for experiments in gastronomy; honey and lychee foam, for example, dot the Pika cocktail.
Dinner entrees build upon these delights. The cauliflower panna cotta—built with heirloom chicories, compressed apple, toasted pistachio, milk crumb and champagne vinaigrette— plays with your taste buds, as does the halibut with toasted hazelnuts, soy-braised salsify, hon shimeji mushrooms and uni cream (a sauce made with sea urchin roe). For dessert, I had the hardest time choosing between the créme Catalan, featuring pistachio ice cream and blood orange yogurt among other ingredients, and the grapefruit entremét with lavender Earl Grey consommé. Fortunately Cafe ArtScience offers a curated plate of desserts so I didn’t have to pick only one.
Not having to pick only one also seems to be the modus operandi for founder and Harvard professor, David Edwards, whose purpose is to have Cafe ArtScience also serve as a culture lab. “A culture lab is a place where ideas are generated, experimentation takes place and new ideas are exhibited over and over,” Edwards says. In that sense, he adds, restaurants are very much like culture labs cycling through these three processes.
Cafe ArtScience is probably the most visible manifestation of Edwards’ grand ambitions; many an idea has been seeded at his art and design center called Le Laboratoire, which Edwards started in Paris in 2007 before relocating it to Cambridge. The restaurant’s location in Kendall Square, in the shadow of world-renowned institutions like MIT and Harvard, seems only fitting as Edwards hopes to further adventure into food, science and pretty much any idea at the intersection with sustainability that is worth exploring.
And while the restaurant’s name implies a fusion of art and science, there is no overt emphasis on such a theme. That’s perhaps because the focus at Cafe ArtScience is not so much on a mixing of art and science as much as it is about science supporting art, says Chef Benjamin Lacy.
The science isn’t exactly in your face as far as the food goes, Lacy points out. But it’s there. My cocktail, for example, clarified the pineapple juice to magnificent effect, yielding a crystal-clear liquid. And the kitchen employs spherification to create flavored balls. “With these tools, we transform ordinary ingredients into something entirely different, so that it does what we want on the plate to fulfill the artistic element of the experience,” Lacy says. There’s a lot of whimsy that such play with science can create.
Walk around the restaurant and you’ll find subtle nods to Edwards’s other projects. For example, a storage unit out back displays Incredible Foods, bite-sized snacks with edible plant-based skins. Edwards’s books, which describe his passion for futuristic inventions, are displayed against the Sensorium Wall near the bar. My bill came with an invitation to check out The World Frontiers Forum, another project which Edwards favors, which leverages technology and thought leadership to address global challenges as outlined by the United Nations.
Peel the layers that overlay the dishes at Cafe ArtScience and you will find a holistic approach to food, science and their interplay on the global stage. The problem is that these layers might sometimes be too tightly wound, difficult to unearth and explore. At its heart, Cafe ArtScience is a dazzling restaurant, yes. But it has not effectively sold its unique value proposition as an establishment that’s so much more.
After all, dazzling restaurants in one of the most exclusive zip codes in the Boston area are not that much of a rarity. There’s a lot going on at Cafe ArtScience, but without some explanation, that message ends up getting a little muddled in the lychee foam or other ephemeral amuse-bouche it so elegantly delivers.