Crema Cafe Cambridge, MA Pub/Cafe
4.5-Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
One owner met her future spouse here, and maybe you will too.
You might meet the love of your life at Crema Cafe in Harvard Square. Liza Baer-Kahn met her fiance here. She’s the co-owner who’s run the place since 2008 with her old college friend Marley Brush. I spoke with them at 3pm on a weekday afternoon, but even between lunch and dinner, the place was packed.
As students, Liza and Marley spent one summer travelling Europe. There they saw cafes in Spain, France, and Paris with a charm that they wanted to bring here to Harvard Square, which has a lot of chains, but no independent cafe unless you include Leo’s Diner, which isn’t posh, or Darwin’s, which is just outside Harvard Square and (as I reviewed last week) fails to impress.
Their interior design for Crema Cafe took inspiration from the existing space, with its natural brick walls and antique pine flooring. This place used to be an Au Bon Pain. It seats 60 people on two levels, with easy listening & bluegrass music playing on loudspeakers. With skylights, it’s bright, and with the brick, tin plating, and real art on the walls, it balances between kitsch and cultured. It’s professional, but not corporately devoid of character. There’s a mirror on one wall which they’ve decorated with wooden shutters. Downstairs they have high tables, stools, and a diner-style counter.
Liza tells me her love story. “We call him ‘the milkman’ for fun, but he’s really the distributor of our dairy and eggs,” she says. “When we first opened, he would come in a lot, to drop off an invoice.” He even forgot things on purpose as an excuse to come back and see her. It didn’t take long for the employees to notice: “Why is our milkman helping us clean up and close the shop late at night?”
“He just used to show up a lot until I agreed to date him,” Liza says, “He was very persistent.” I would love to have heard that he popped the question here in the cafe, but regretfully it was in Maine’s Arcadia National Park, where Liza’s family has a tradition of going every year.
I have to ask the question I always ask at cafes: What about loiterers, those people who plunk down a laptop and make it impossible to sit with a friend to have a real conversation over tea?
Marley tells me that they’ve disconnected the wireless Internet just for that reason, and that their employees politely enforce a one-hour limit on tables. “Our bussers definitely notice.” I’m glad to hear that, and it’s another factor separating them from nearby Darwin’s.
Everything at Crema Cafe is made homemade on site: they roast their own meats, make their own salad sauce, raise their own dough, and mix their own spreads for sandwiches. Every day they have a new soup and quiche special.
Let’s try some food. Marley brings me a watermelon ade ($1.75 small, $2.55 large). You know, it’s a lemonade without the lemon, and, um, with watermelon. Wow! It tastes just like a watermelon, not too sweet, with the fruitiness of a smoothie, except there’s no ice: it’s a juice drink.
I also sampled the tomato bisque. It’s served refreshingly warm but I couldn’t find anything unusual or special about it. Like any bisque it’s so well-blended that it has no real texture, and perhaps because of that, no spice overtones popped out at me. The focaccia bread that it comes with though (and they bake it on site) is perfect: light and airy, a delightful chew, hearty.
I was offered the Turkey & Jicama Slaw ($7.50, but the photo is only a half-sandwich), a “house roasted turkey with jicama slaw, avocado, bacon, mayo, & ancho chili vinaigrette on a toasted homemade baguette,” but I strongly suspect that I was actually served the Turkey & Jarlsberg Spread instead. Hmm.
This bread, which looks like a french loaf, is also made in-house, and it’s also delicious, but it’s hard to get my mouth around it and chew through. The sandwich is dominated by its bacon taste and while it has layers, there’s perhaps too much of the mayonnaise-like spread, which is unncessary and along with the nicely crunchy (but not completely raw) vegetables hides the turkey meat entirely. That being said, once I found it the turkey is not the slippery deli meat that we’re used to. It’s savory and makes you stop for a moment to hold it in your mouth. Like all the sandwiches I try here, it’s messy to eat. Perhaps it should be served with a plastic spoon to eat up the remnants.
The sweet potato chips are impressive. Made in-house, they’re extremely thin, and come with no salt. It’s definitely a unique taste. Even though they’re deep fried they are not oily, so the flavor really comes through. You know what I mean. You dig into a bag of potato chips sometimes and after a few chips the oil and salt really make you regret having started. These chips aren’t like that at all.
The Crema Grilled Chicken ($7) is the customer favorite, the signature sandwich, and it’s my favorite, too, “grilled chicken breast with sliced avocado & zesty cotija cheese-corn spread, pressed on light sourdough.” While the bread came too toastedly tough to bite into like a starving wolf (the way many of us eat on a quick lunch break), it’s undeniably delicious. The hearty chicken breast meat is invigorating, a good chew that’s a great match with the sauce. They added kernels of corn — a master touch! — and it’s spicy enough to leave an aftertaste in your mouth.
I also try a vegetarian option, the Sweet Potato Sandwich ($7), “with avocado, green apple, sprouts, hummus & caramelized
I try a French cannelle ($1.50, which despite the photo is served separate from the truffle). It’s a honey-soaked pastry, like a pecan roll, and has a consistency and taste like a nut bread. It’s not too sweet, and sized right to not spoil your diet. I’m afraid I didn’t care for the truffle, which wasn’t bad but must be an acquired taste. The molten chocolate core was too rich and the outer chocolate shell too bitter for me, and the powdered chocolate coating stayed on my hands. I didn’t sample any of their other bakery products, but they have quite a selection.
Overall, I leave impressed. Crema Cafe is a remarkably fun and classy — but not stuck-up — place to get surprisingly good food in an atmosphere where you might actually get a seat, indoors or on one of the few outdoor patios in Harvard Square. As for Liza and her fiancee, I have to ask one more question. “So, has your fiancee been wooing you with a discount on dairy?”
“Of course,” she replies with a smile. She’s given new meaning to being “married to the business”.
27 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA