Cognac Bistro immediately piqued my interest upon its debut in October. A swanky French restaurant in a former burger joint a few blocks from the Allston line on Harvard Street? This I had to see. Would the food be good enough to sustain the prices? Would the neighborhood, a mix of students and families, respond favorably?
Well, last Saturday, with the snow falling softly outside, Cognac Bistro almost conjured the feeling of sitting in a Parisian lounge—the vintage French prints on the walls, the dark-haired bartender deftly pouring behind the bottle-lined bar topped with poured concrete. Until, that is, one’s eye lands upon the giant steel garage door that hearkens back to the building’s origins as a gas station. Cognac is an oddball mix of upscale French eatery and trendy South End spot: the entrée prices scream for white tablecloths and hundred-dollar bottles of Bordeaux, but the vibe created by the unfinished brick walls and the aforementioned monster garage door is more casual chic, for the jeans-and-bed-head crowd. As Cognac’s dozen or so tables fill up—and fill they do—you hear not the reserved hush of a four-star restaurant, but the chatter of moms out with their eighth graders, of urban hipsters discussing what just arrived in their CSA box, of elderly couples like the one who sat next to us, gossiping in Boston accents. I suppose, after all, good food does have the ability to transcend demographics.
Like any French restaurant worth its weight in baguette, Cognac appears to know a good thing when it tastes one. If you, like me, could live on nothing but bread and croissants from Brookline’s own Clear Flour Bread, you will be thrilled to learn that Cognac sources most of its bread from that venerated house of baked delights. A fresh basket of Clear Flour baguette made its way to our table to whet our appetites, and its contents promptly disappeared. We also finished a basket of Cognac's Gougères ($8), savory biscuits akin to cream puffs but with cheesy centers, and could have easily gone for seconds.
As one might expect, Cognac Bistro offers a notable list of cognacs in addition to the full bar; a nice wine list offers wine by the glass or by the bottle. The restaurant's menu is short and to-the-point, with seafood the star of the show. A raw bar offers varieties of oysters, which, although trucked in from around New England instead of la belle Brittany, taste clean and delicious. The Bluepoint oysters are a bargain at just $1 each, every night of the week. Seafood entrees include sautéed rainbow trout, served with capers, pumpkin seeds and brown butter ($21), and salmon “coq au vin,” a grilled salmon filet served with mushrooms, pearl onions and wine sauce in the style of the famous chicken dish ($22). A beautifully presented baked stuffed lobster steals the show: tail meat left intact, body stuffed with Maine shrimp and claw meat made into fresh bisque, served along with the lobster as a sauce ($22). If you’re in the market for something less luxurious—read: less pricey—you can choose a sandwich like the Cognac Burger, a lamb patty served with onion rings on the side ($14), or a pasta dish like Seafood Fregola, with saffron and fennel ($14). My companion opted for the plat du jour, which on Saturdays is a chef's creation featuring shrimp so fresh they might have swum straight in from Cape Cod. But oh, the salt! Shrimp may be saltwater creatures, but they don’t need the extra salt once they’re on the plate. I’m a sodiovore through and through, so it didn’t faze me, but my dining companion finished our carafe of water by himself.
We ended our meal with a refreshing and inventive dessert course: a small pot of chocolate cognac truffle with sugar cookies, and a small cherry and apricot bread pudding, a steal at just $3 each. The dessert choices are few, but ever-changing, and the miniature bit of sweetness was the perfect light ending to the meal.
The place filled quickly, and, by the time we left, people were waiting for our seats. I suppose that was fate’s way of gently chiding me for my initial skepticism about Cognac—it seems JFK Crossing has found its new hotspot.
Cognac Bistro is open Sunday - Thursday, 5:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.; Friday - Saturday, 5:30 p.m. - 12 midnight; and for brunch on Saturday and Sunday, 11AM-3PM. Small off-street parking lot. 455 Harvard Street, Brookline. MBTA: Green line to Harvard Ave (B line) or to Coolidge Corner (C line).