Friday, June 14, 2024

Sake chicken at Judy’s Bay in Cambridge’s The Port neighborhood. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Late in 2021, while the Covid pandemic still had us in its grip, Judy’s Bay arrived to replace Bondir, a cozy farm-to-table eatery on a stretch of Broadway across from the Lamplighter Brewery. It made the most of Bondir’s quaint intimacy while adding a touch of izakaya, a Japanese approach that might see diners sharing five or six small plates over drinks. The result is a killer set of sake offerings and fresh New England seafood brought to you with Japanese and Hawaiian accents.

The menu’s tight but filled with choices for restricted diets; pescatarians will rejoice, but there’s pork and chicken to be had and the vegan offerings are pretty vast, not just side dishes to assemble into a scramble of impromptu tapas.

Judy’s has been in a bit of an evolution. Early on it had more sushi and Hawaiian-infused offerings, and now there’s a more pan-Asian feel with unique spins on classic Asian and New England fare.

Among the starters, the mussels are the prime example of all things New England and Asian, as they come with a butter sauce employing Korean gochujang, a spicy-sweet chili. The pork and shiso dumplings are intriguing in that they’re meaty, thin-skinned and have a multitude of textures – including those al dente shiso leaves with their astringent bite and a muscular soy flavoring – and something quite different than your classic soup dumpling. The smooth and rich miso soup is pretty much your basic offering, but you can add a few nuggets of fresh lobster and make your pre-dinner slurp a succulent seafood treat. On the veggie side of things, you can get appetizer servings of sesame baby broccoli or oyster mushrooms, but you might be inspired to hold out for an entree of mushroom-tofu stir fry. The ’shrooms are the same freshly sourced and perfectly cooked oysters; the tofu is battered and lightly fried, which is fine, though I wonder if no batter might be a bigger win. (The entrees also include a spicy gochujang tofu.)

A smattering of dishes at Judy’s Bay. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The must-have at Judy’s is the sake chicken, bone-in dark-meat thighs marinated in a soy sauce with a light touch. When I mentioned my delight with the dish, my daughter insisted I take her to Judy’s Bay, where she concurred. There’s a fried rice that you can get with lobster, some of that soy chicken thigh or a spicy sausage. We had the basic vegetarian offering, which was light and not oily, with veggies that still had a trace of crisp freshness. We tried the monkfish katsu, as my daughter is a huge fan of fish and chips and chicken katsu. We both appreciated it, but again, I wondered if the monkfish tenders might have been more interesting in some of that soy marinade. 

There’s a pork belly entree option for those who don’t want sea or veggies, but the items on the menu that caught my eye for future visits are the seared scallop appetizer in a soy sauce butter (I silently coveted it every time I saw an order served to a nearby table) and a lobster roe pasta to which you can add lobster chunks, and why wouldn’t you. (I’m thinking this is the Asian version of the lobster spaghetti at Moëca?) 

The selection of sakes is vast, and all are super smooth. I’d say Judy’s (named after the owner’s nana) has one of the best-curated sake lists in town alongside Shōjō in Central Square. The other fun thing at Judy’s is the dessert offerings. Much that you eat on the menu is not super filling, though it is satisfying, so you have room at the end of your culinary sojourn. My daughter had an ice cream sundae with mochi and matcha cookie crumble. I went for the strawberry tapioca made with coconut milk. It was an easy choice for me – my mom used to make vanilla tapioca all the time, but it’s a childhood favorite I don’t revisit often. It was light, well textured and popped with strawberry flavor; my only complaint was that I wanted more, though my daughter’s sundae was pretty robust and required an assist. 

Judy’s service is attentive, and the food is prepared and delivered with great care. When you’re done eating you pay your bill at the host kiosk on your way out, though – something a little different at a restaurant of this stature, but then again, most every thing at Judy’s Bay is, and pleasingly so. 

Judy’s Bay, 279a Broadway, The Port, Cambridge

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.