Thursday, June 13, 2024

Smoked duck crepes at the recently opened Althea in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

“Smoked” and “duck” are two words that catch my eye on their own. Put them together and I’m locked and loaded, and Althea features a smoked duck crepe that is out of this world among its other appealing offerings. In the Sonder 907 Main hotel in the space that was The Dial, Althea is owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Shauna Rayburn and Greg Reeves, who run Vialé across Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square – a favorite brunch spot.

The bar is a dark and homey cave of sorts where one could see themselves holing up and drinking scotch during a rainstorm or writing the great American novel. The restaurant is a perfect place to have a business lunch (or bang out a food column), impress a first date or even have an after-school early dinner with the fam. And out back, Althea features one of the coolest, can’t-see-it-from-the-street patios, pretty much one of the neatest outdoor dining spaces this side of the river. Nestled in the corner is the smoker where that duck and much of the menu bides its time before arriving at your table. The smoker is branded “Althea,” a nod to the similarly titled Dead song, and near every time I’ve been to Althea I’ve heard nothing but the Grateful Dead or similar folkie-hippie music. As a person who’s seen more than a dozen Dead shows, I like it more than a little; it’s a feature I hope they expand on.

The menu does a nice job of blending sea and land and offers vegetarian fare. Every time I have been there folks have raved about the Little Gem Caesar salad that comes with parmesan crisps, and then there’s asparagus with a crispy egg, fried cauliflower and a braised cabbage that’s meaty and slightly smoked and comes with a parsnip purée. Cabbage as a main seems to be trending these days. On the lunch menu (Althea is open 11:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week) there’s a housemade veggie burger, a  short rib hot dog and a Cubano sandwich. Many savories, such as the double bacon cheeseburger, smoky corn chowder and ceviche, wind up on day and night listings. That ceviche of halibut, squid and shrimp, which I’ve yet to try, comes out as something arty: All the citrus-marinated gems in the ice-packed bowl are under a perfectly formed dome of foam. I thought someone was having the coolest dessert until I saw a frutti di mare morsel on the tine of the diner’s fork.

Althea’s Giannone chicken comes with potato gnocchi and a black garlic au jus. (Photo: Tom Meek)

As for those duck crepes, I can’t say enough. The thin blue crepe wrapper is pliable, the smoked duck is perfectly shredded and flavorful, and the two wraps come surrounded by a moat of spicy chili barbecue sauce and crowned with a bit of frisée salad that really adds to the taste when you get a bit of each on your fork. There’s a duck breast on the mains menu as well that has my eye, and crab spaghetti, though the comfort eat is the Giannone chicken with potato gnocchi and a black garlic au jus. The skin on the chicken is perfectly crisp, yet the meat is tender and moist, and that gnocchi with au jus have more of a dumpling versus a pasta vibe. 

Althea’s patio is an urban oasis that, once discovered, will likely become a hip gathering spot. The bonus, besides hearing “Jack Straw” and “Terrapin Station,” is that the patio has a retractable roof, so no strong sun or threat of a shower can dash your alfresco dining dreams.

Althea, 2 Columbia St., Central Square, 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.